Part 3: the aftermath

29th April 2005 at 01:00
It's the Monday after the week before. The inspectors have gone, their verbal report delivered last thing on Friday. Cause for celebration or the beginning of a long haul out of special measures? For Nicholas Chamberlaine school it was the latter. In the last of our series, Michael Duffy visits Warwickshire's largest school where head Lesley King (above) had been in post for a month when the inspectors told her in 1999 that it did "not have the capacity to make improvements".

"It was a four-year sentence," Mrs King says. "Two years at least in special measures; two more years to the next inspection." How did they recover from what one deputy describes as a bereavement? "We were shaken to the core. It was as if Ofsted were picking at our bones."

There is no right way to prepare, go through and recover from an inspection. But, as with our first Friday Forum last year on behaviour, there are common threads, ideas and solutions. Headteachers John Claydon and Val Woollven, chair of governors Alison Shepherd and Year 12 pupil Matthew Holehouse join the debate. You can too, by going to

The Nicholas Chamberlaine school in Bedworth, now a technology college, has had three inspections in five years. Overall they tell a story of remarkable improvement: in 1999 Ofsted deemed the school to be failing.

Leadership and management were poor, much of the teaching was unsatisfactory, achievement and behaviour were poor. "The school does not have the capacity to make improvements," the inspectors said, and they placed it in special measures.

For long-serving deputies Paul Williams and Ray Speakman it was a devastating blow. "It was like a bereavement," says Mr Speakman. "We were shaken to the core. It was as if Ofsted were picking at our bones." Mr Williams agrees. "To begin with, there was just this surge of anger." They concede, though, that the verdict was neither unfair, nor wholly unexpected.

It certainly wasn't unexpected by Lesley King. A month before the inspection, and already an experienced head, she was summoned to County Hall. The head at Nicholas Chamberlaine - with 1,500 pupils, by some way the largest school in Warwickshire - had gone on extended sick leave.Would she, on a temporary basis, take over? "No action is no option," she was told. "I was reluctant, to put it mildly," says Ms King. But she came, nevertheless.

Even in those first four weeks she made a difference. "The positive influence of the acting head," the inspectors wrote, "is widely acknowledged by the staff." She sensed it herself. "I looked at the team and I began to feel that together we could make a difference." At the end of her first term the permanent post was advertised and, after much reflection, she decided to apply. She smiles. "It was a four-year sentence: two years at least in special measures; two more years to the next inspection."

The first thing was to accept the verdict. The areas of the school that had been praised - the sixth form and SEN provision among them - felt the greatest bitterness. Everybody felt vulnerable. Parents were angry; the local paper hostile. It took time to come to terms with this. For the deputies, though, there was an overwhelming feeling of relief. At last things had come to a head. "Within a month or so," says Ray Speakman, "we'd got through the anger stage. We recognised it was time to move on."

The crucial resource, and the one most easily damaged, was self-belief.

That, says Paul Williams, was Lesley King's most precious contribution. "It was infectious. It was our driving force. Within six months you could see the change. Staff were smiling again; students would look you in the eye."

The recovery plan was all-important. First and foremost, there had to be an unremitting focus on teaching and learning. It was a carrot and stick approach, Lesley King explains: a lot of support, a lot of Inset, and a lot of close monitoring. A third deputy was appointed, with the brief to raise achievement. Pupils as well as teachers noticed the difference. "The attitude to learning changed," one tells me. "I think Mrs King cracked the whip a bit." She acknowledges this. "Sometimes unpleasant things had to be written and said."

Behaviour around the school was a critical issue. "This is a Ridings in the making," the lead inspector had said, referring to the Calderdale school that had been dominating recent media coverage. The comment didn't appear in the written report, but for the new head and her team it had resounding force. Both the culture and the organisation had to change. At break and lunchtimes, everybody had to be responsible. There was to be no more turning of blind eyes. Lunch hour was shortened; supervision duties were doubled. Every area of the school and every lesson change had a duty presence. Bells, discontinued by the previous regime, were reinstated.

"There were to be no more arguments about lateness," says Paul Williams.

Ofsted had found the curriculum and accommodation broadly satisfactory.

Lesley King and her new team were less sure. Too many children were being pushed through too many inappropriate courses. The introduction of vocational and work-related courses was therefore a priority. So was the improvement of the site. "This place is a dump," a student said to Mrs King on her first day. Juvenile exaggeration, perhaps, but the appointment of a painter and handyman who works every afternoon and evening signalled a new determination to improve the school's own image. It was part and parcel of the core commitment, says Lesley King: to develop a positive self-image among all the students. A professionally produced school newsletter, full of reports of group projects and individual endeavour, symbolises this approach.

This makes it all sound quite straightforward. In reality, of course, recovery from the Ofsted verdict was never that. Among the staff there was inevitable trauma, for another priority was to weed out ineffective teaching. One of Lesley King's particular talents, according to Ray Speakman, was to know when people needed support "and when they needed bollocking". During the first half-term, 12 teachers were placed on support and counselling proceedings. For one, this led to what Ray describes as "a total transformation". The others chose to leave. "It was surely better for them. They were deeply unhappy, as well as struggling - an impossible situation," says Lesley King.

But those teachers had to be replaced. The hardest thing about special measures, according to the head and her deputies, is their effect on staff recruitment. Good teachers tend to shun such posts. "We couldn't even appoint NQTs, until we convinced our HMI inspectors otherwise." The support of the LEA, however, was a counter-balance. They funded the glossy school brochure, and upped their relocation allowance for newly appointed teachers from the standard pound;75 to a generous pound;1,000. "Once I had good applicants in school," says Lesley King, "I had every chance of keeping them."

The termly visits by HMI, part of the special measures package, were "absolutely crucial". Ray Speakman describes them as "very hard, but more developmental than judgmental. There was a sort of clarity and directness about them that we appreciated."

Lesley King agrees. "They sharpened our practice. They responded flexibly and sensibly to what we were trying to do, and they gave us a measurement of our progress. After four visits they promised us a team inspection the following term. If the improvements they had seen were judged to be 'embedded' , it would lift us out of special measures."

All of the leadership team talk movingly about the effect of that decision.

Like other staff, they had been working 12-hour days in school and long, long hours outside it. "It felt like being freed of our fetters," they say.

Staff drank sparkling wine at the meeting called to pass on the good news, but it came with a reminder. "Ofsted come back in two years' time," Lesley King told them, "but this time, the power is with us."

Her confidence was not misplaced. When Ofsted came back to Nicholas Chamberlaine early last year - by now a technology college and holder of a DfES school improvement award - they reported on a very different institution. Not everything was perfect. The college still reflected the social and economic difficulties of the former mining area that it served; at key stage 4 (though not in the sixth form) standards were still deemed to be "below average". Teaching, though, was good or very good, and so was behaviour. There was a wide range of extended learning: the breakfast club support of Year 7 literacy was "an outstanding example of good practice"; the varied needs of students of all ages were "consistently well met", and students were "increasingly proud to be members of the college".

The students I talk to in now gleaming classrooms and corridors echo and reflect that judgment. The sixth-formers among them can remember what their school was like before the 1999 inspection. There is more respect, one of them says, "not just for teachers, but for each other". They say that the opportunities are "brilliant": they talk about the fast track for GCSE, "super learning days", and "trigger lessons" in maths, and the college's buddy programme. I learn about its summer school, too, in partnership with the National Space Centre, and the college's pioneering involvement with the University of the First Age. They are emphatic about Lesley King. "She showed us we could do better," says one. "She gave us something to believe in." Younger students make revealing comments, too. "You don't disappear into the cracks any more," says one. The governors are also making a difference. "At first, they knew nothing about the school; now they work with each of our departments, attend meetings, watch teaching, take part in reviews. Their membership has changed; only two of the original members are still there. They ask searching questions, and give real feedback."

I ask Paul Williams and Ray Speakman - the latter now nominally retired, but still heavily involved in the college's summer school and in a vigorous drama programme - to tell me the secret of Nicholas Chamberlaine's recovery. They agree that it wasn't really the recovery plan itself, important though it was. Nothing in it, after all, was new, says Ray Speakman. "It worked because the climate changed; because it became possible to take risks, to innovate, to be adventurous."

Paul Williams agrees. "A lot of schools are spongy. You put lots of hard work into them, and somehow it doesn't change their shape. Everything just springs back. It isn't like that here. Ofsted was the catalyst, but it needed a vision, a core of determination at the centre. Lesley King's leadership provided that. She knew where we were going and she taught us to fight our corner, not to cower."

Matthew Holehouse is a Year 12 pupil at Harrogate grammar school

"In the couple of weeks after Ofsted, like after exams, there is a definite sag, as teachers relax after an anxious term and return to the usual routine. Unless there is anything truly scandalous, pupils pay little attention to the report once it's published; we can usually tell whether our school is good or not and how it compares with others.

"Ofsted feels strange for us because it turns the school hierarchy upside down. For once, it is the teachers who are being examined by the Government, under pressure to meet deadlines and apologising for not having time to hand back work. In classes where teachers have been open about how annoying the process is, there can be, I think, a new understanding: for students, a realisation that teachers are human, and can too get stressed and worry about failing; and for teachers, a reminder of just how tiring and pressurised exams are."

Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school

"After the initial 'phew, thank God that's over', the fear began to seep back in. Did I really say that? How did I not say that? Did I unintentionally undermine the head? But when we finally got our hands on the preliminary report, it did not contain anything we weren't expecting.

We know that we are a good school. We work within a local authority so weak it was privatised, yet we consistently get above national results. But still the positive nature of the report was a relief.

"As a governor, the most interesting part of the whole exercise, before, during and after, was the attitude of other parents. We, like most schools, have a hard knot of parents for whom we can do very little right. Before Ofsted arrived, I was warned, several times, that my particular failings, as well as the school's, would be uncovered. During the inspection they were vocal at the meetings, and no doubt submitted strongly worded questionnaires. But when the inspectors found the vast majority of parents were at least satisfied with the school and that our communication and relationship with parents was a strength, did the doubters have a change of heart and realise we were all doing our best? Yeah, right, as my daughter would say."

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow

"The most telling evaluation of the usefulness of the inspection process is how schools react in the aftermath. Unless you've been assigned 'serious weaknesses' or put in special measures, everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief, whether it's an excellent, a good or a satisfactory report, and is only too glad to get on with the rest of their lives.

"In my experience, inspection findings have had not a jot of impact on our school. We draw up an action plan, certainly, but it's more a case of re-asserting why we can't do assemblies every day than developing revolutionary learning strategies. As an aside, we received a very ordinary grading on care of students, which is an absolute strength of the school, because one of our deputies got so annoyed with the inflexible twaddle the relevant inspector was purveying on the subject.

"We all make use of the praise of Ofsted reports, of course, in our personal job applications and corporate marketing. In the last resort that's probably their main use: as an advertising tool. The action plan is literally and figuratively an addendum to the real work and planning of the school, indeed the very last page in the school development plan."

Val Woollven is head of St Andrew's primary school, Plymouth

"Our inspection report was very positive, with no key issues to address.

The inspectors were sympathetic about the stolen computers and encouraged by our plans to replace them. The teacher who demanded to be seen was given a good grade.

"But no one seemed to believe that the report was so good. We were relieved it was all over, but we knew there were things that we wanted to improve.

There was a faint scepticism from the staff, which was quite hard to handle from a management point of view. You are either good, or you aren't.

"The action plan was pretty much what we were going to do anyway and everyone became cheerful as life returned to normal. What Ofsted did do was empower us. They had seen the capacity to improve and given us permission to prove ourselves. And this is good. This is how it should be.

"The next inspection will confirm whether their trust was well placed."

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