Picture is far from perfect

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Council leaves pupils to suffer 'workhouse' conditions in 17th-century school, reports Adi Bloom

Cheriton Fitzpaine primary would not look out of place on the lid of a chocolate box. The 17th-century building is one of the last thatched schools in Britain. Chimneys poke out of its roof and whitewashed walls glow in the spring sunshine.

But the picture-perfect facade of the 90-pupil school hides a less-than-ideal reality. In 1996, Ofsted condemned the building as "grossly unsuitable". Wendy Harris, headteacher, said: "Ten years down the line, it's still grossly unsuitable. And 10 years older."

Devon county council had promised to build a new school by 2008. But last week, Ms Harris was told that the pound;4 million project was too expensive to be implemented. "Parents are voting with their feet and going to the up-to-date school five miles up the road," she said. "What we have to offer can't compare."

Until recently, the school's thatched roof leaked. On one occasion, water poured through the loft and on to school computers. Water also seeped through the walls so that crumbling pieces of plaster fell into the playground. These are now held in place with chicken-wire. Built in 1642, the traditional Devon longhouse stands in the middle of the 929-resident village of Cheriton Fitzpaine. It was originally used both as a school and as the village workhouse. Two classrooms still have high ceilings and windows are so high up on the walls that pupils cannot see out.

Carey Thorne, who teaches Years 5 and 6, said: "The height of the windows means that there's a lack of oxygen. And pupils can't look out and see the birds visiting their birdtable."

The longhouse structure of the school means that access to the library and to some of the classrooms is only through other classrooms. "It would be nice for pupils to be able to nip into the library to look something up,"

Ms Thorne said. "Here, it has to be carefully timetabled and choreographed."

Ten-year-old Clarrie Lancelles said: "I feel jealous when I see other pupils. They have big schools. We bang into each other because the classrooms are so small.

"When it's cold, it's really, really cold, and when it's hot, it's boiling.

Sometimes I feel as though it's still a workhouse."

The building is too small to accommodate all classes, so older pupils are taught in a converted house on the other side of the village. To reach the school, they must walk down narrow roads, watching out for regular traffic.

Ms Harris shares an office with two members of administrative staff, so she is unable to meet parents in private without sending the administrators home. Lack of staffroom space means that teachers often sit on the floor.

"It would make a wonderful museum," said Ms Thorne. "But the lack of facilities is holding us back. We feel like a poor relation to other schools."

A spokeswoman for Devon council said: "The replacement school for Cheriton Fitzpaine remains one of our highest priorities. The design and site acquisition are well advanced, and we now await government announcements about future funding."

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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