'Welcome back' is the traditional greeting as the new term starts. But not at Edward Redhead school, where 10 of the 12 teaching staff, including the head, have resigned following a devastating Ofsted report. Wendy Wallace examines the inspectors' contribution to the profession's recruitment crisis.
The new term dawns at Edward Redhead infant and nursery school in Walthamstow, east London, under the stewardship of Linda Burton, an experienced and well-regarded headteacher brought in by the local authority to take charge for a year. Departing staff wish Ms Burton and her newly constructed team nothing but well in the coming year. But something has happened in this school, and the 10 staff who haven't returned this week want their story told.
Back to July, and the end of the summer term. It's the annual leavers' assembly at Edward Redhead, and departing Year 2 children are dressed up in spotted scarves, faces painted under skull and crossbones hats. Parents crowd into the back of the hall, clutching babies and video cameras as the head urges them to turn off their mobile phones and give the children their full support.
Soon, the stately wistfulness of the Desert Island Discs theme tune fills the hall, evoking a world where routine and predictability reign, a world far away from this school in a traffic-choked corner of east London, where children come and go sometimes on a termly basis, where 22 languages are spoken, with one pupil in four just starting to learn English, and where this school, in its current form at least, ceases to exist at the end of the week.
Recent events at Edward Redhead raise the question: what is a school? The low-rise, wooden-clad, 1970s buildings will still be here in the new term, despite the repeated break-ins over the past 18 months, which have relieved the school of all seven of its i-Mac computers. But nine of the 11 teachers are not coming back, nor Naomi Flynn, headteacher for the past four years. The chair of governors has resigned too. "There's a great sense of sadness and loss, and people still feel angry," says Ms Flynn.
"Say goodbye to Sally and goodbye to Sue and we're bound for the Rio Grande," the children sing. Staff look on from the sides, whey-faced, tissues held tight in their fists.
Last February, Ofsted inspectors arrived at Edward Redhead school. They didn't like what they saw. The school was undeniably vulnerable, with poor - but improving - SATs results, high pupil mobility and almost half the children entitled to free school meals. On top of which, the head had just had a term's unpaid leave, to reassure herself that her own three daughters, aged 13, nine and five, were coping with their mother's major commitment elsewhere. She returned in January with renewed resolve and energy, but it wasn't the best time to welcome Ofsted. "I felt as if I didn't know the school sufficiently to lead it through an Ofsted inspection," says Naomi Flynn. "It had temporarily become someone else's school."
Inspectors made clear on the first day that they weren't pleased, and staff became uneasy, says Ms Flynn. "By Tuesday, they were being told that their teaching was unsatisfactory. They felt as if the rug was being pulled from under them." The week went from bad to worse. "Staff became scared and low, and the children seemed to do the opposite of rise to the occasion. It just ran away with us, and we couldn't play the game we were meant to play."
Although the head and staff knew there were weaknesses in the school - "a vulnerable school in a vulnerable authority", says the head - nothing had prepared them for failing the inspection. Results - although low by national standards - had improved since the previous inspection three-and-a-half years earlier. The term before the February inspection, Edward Redhead had been included in Waltham Forest's top 10 improving primary schools. "The advisory service feedback had been that the school was improving sufficiently," says Naomi Flynn. "They could see the bigger picture, but Ofsted came in and said 'time's up'."
Staff were devastated by the range and harshness of the judgments in the report. "Everyone was shocked," says 26-year-old teacher Angela Rogers. "It just sank us all so low that the major criticism was that we weren't trying to get the best out of these children - when that is the whole point of doing this job."
They also thought the inspectors were wrong. "They were making judgments without seeing the whole picture," says another teacher. "Some of what they said in the report was baffling. Staff felt, universally, that they had decided before they arrived that the school had to fail because of the SATs."
Some parents, on reading the report, thought it was about a different school. "I was shocked," says Pauline Gentles, four of whose children have attended Edward Redhead. "I wouldn't knock the school. My children have been doing well, and Mrs Flynn has done a good job."
The disintegration of the school began almost before the inspectors were out of the door. First to go was the deputy head, who had been covering for Naomi Flynn in the term's leave she had taken immediately before the inspection. Deirdre Morrow's long and successful career ended in acute distress when she broke down in front of inspectors and left "overnight". To see a respected colleague leave in these circumstances dealt a further body blow to staffroom morale. Another teacher nearing retirement was "too tired to take it", says Naomi Flynn, and announced straight after spring half term that she would be leaving.
The 39-year-old headteacher was also almost broken by the Ofsted process. "I fell a long way," says Naomi Flynn. "I felt as if I had no worth as a human being. I became depressed. It made me and the staff forget overnight all the good things about the school, and what we held dear about it."
Next, 46-year-old Ian Brown - a Year 2 class teacher who had spent more than eight years at Edward Redhead - handed in his resignation. "I just wanted to get out and do supply teaching until I got back on my feet, confidence-wise," says Mr Brown, formerly music co-ordinator at the school and with 24 years' teaching experience.
"I felt my sanity was at stake. The devastation we felt after the report - it was wholesale destruction. We couldn't just stand up and dust ourselves down." Mr Brown - who has been persuaded by governors to go back to the school as a part-time supply teacher - greatly regrets what has been lost. "It's a tragedy," he says. "It was such a strong team, supportive, working for the good of the children and each other."
In a time of acute teacher shortage, especially in London, Naomi Flynn struggled to recruit replacements for senior staff to a school labelled "failing". "Appointing senior teachers became impossible after the inspection," she says. "We advertised two posts at CPS plus-3, which is megabucks for an infant school, and got a nil response. I suppose teachers think, 'I can get a job anywhere. Why should I put up with the nightmare of being in a special measures school?'" While she got on the phone to recruit temporary staff from Australia and Canada, more resignations followed. "I was receiving faxed copies of resignation letters almost every day," says the outgoing chair of governors, John Pearson. "We had felt we had a strong team, but it was a domino effect. People didn't want to end up as the only one left, with the school in special measures."
Mr Pearson, a 49-year-old FE lecturer in maths, had been chair of the governing body for 12 years. He too decided he'd had enough after the report. "I was pretty angry with some of the criticisms of the governing body. I felt they lacked understanding of some things."
With no senior management team left, younger staff lost confidence. Angela Rogers had been professionally and personally happy in the school which had provided her with her second teaching post. "I had fitted in very well. But it was difficult to see how I was going to learn from more experienced people when they were all leaving," she says. She was one of the last to go, reluctantly handing in her notice a week before the end-of-May deadline. "It's difficult to think that Ofsted has come in and this is the effect," she says, "that staff are so demoralised they don't feel they can pull together. We were there to support the school, definitely, but it came to a point where it was too difficult to believe it could happen."
Angela Rogers - who, like other staff members well enough to seek another job, has had no trouble getting one - did well in the inspection, getting three "goods" and two "satisfactories" for her teaching. But she too has lost confidence. "Even if you have done well, Ofsted makes you feel you're not particularly good at your job," she says. "You think, 'I'm not going to be strong enough to pull this through'."
Naomi Flynn initially had no plans to resign, nor had Ofsted suggested she could not lead the school improvement demanded by special measures. She had strong support from parents and wanted to stay. But writing the action plan brought her down further - "You're reliving the nightmare all the time," she says - and, with all her staff leaving, she decided to resign. "Personally I found it very damaging. The report was an absolute crucifixion, and it was hard to recover fast enough for what's expected of a special measures head - basically that you work 24 hours a day."
Naomi Flynn is not the kind to make excuses, but she is still struggling to come to terms with the results of the inspection. "I don't abrogate responsibility for the weaknesses in the school," she says. "I don't even think inspection is a bad thing. I just think the way they're doing it is wrong. It's as if you come in, you lay waste, you say this is rubbish, and you disable."
Combined with the staff recruitment crisis afflicting schools around the UK, the initial effect of the inspection failure has been to leave the school and its pupils more vulnerable than ever. The new acting head faces the challenge of raising standards with a mainly temporary team, something no one would choose. Five of the eight infant classes will be taught by supply teachers - three Australian, one Canadian and one British. The failing label will continue to make permanent recruitment difficult.
There is another question raised by events at Edward Redhead: what is the purpose of Ofsted inspections? School, with its songs and stories and poems and paintings and costumes, with its secure relationships with trusted adults, can give children a childhood. Some Edward Redhead pupils - buffeted beyond the school walls by cultural dislocation, poverty and ceaseless change, don't have too much of childish things outside school. "For many of those children school is the constant and it will become the not-constant, the unknown. For the parents it's terrifying," says Ms Flynn. "The Ofsted process ripped the heart and soul out of what was in fact an improving school, and the real victims are the children."
She and other colleagues are feeling slightly better this autumn. Rest has eased the pain. But what really lifted their spirits was that this summer SATs results at Edward Redhead were substantially improved - the best the school has ever had.