Serious weaknesses is a phrase to send a chill through every teacher's heart. It did to ours. We knew we had problems, so Ofsted's verdict in the summer of 1999 was not quite a bolt from the blue. Nevertheless, we were stunned and fearful. Our new status had a legal definition; it brought specific implications. The trouble was, we didn't know what these were. Nothing but the timescale was certain. We knew we had a maximum of two years before Ofsted returned; we also knew the local education authority might invite Her Majesty's Inspectorate to visit us at any time.
If the inspectors did come - and they could arrive uninvited - they could recommend that we move to "special measures" or that we had made enough progress for Ofsted to come back immediately with a view to removing us from serious weaknesses. We understood, too, that the local education authority and the diocese (we're a Catholic primary) were supposed to support us through the process, but no one ever spelled out what this meant. The unknown breeds rumour, uncertainty and fear. In this respect, our experience has been typical. To be fair, officers of the LEA (and the diocese, if applicable) cannot pull a single one-size-fits-all solution off a shelf. For example, the authority might remove a school's delegated powers over financial and staffing decisions, but there's no point if the finances are not the problem. Or it might appoint additional governors, but again will not do so if it doesn't think this will help. And, of course, the situation is constantly changing. What seems appropriate one week may not be the next.
But the local authority must provide monitoring, training, guidance, advice, and something vaguely termed "support". For the latter, read "money". They may not tell you this at the outset, but if your school is judged to have "serious weaknesses" or to require "special measures", your LEA is legally bound to give you money. Advice, guidance and monitoring should be on offer whether you're a struggling school or not; those judged to be "failing" need cash for staff training, classroom release, even additional staffing. How much, of course, is open to negotiation, but it will certainly be in the thousands of pounds; you are entitled to it and they have a duty to provide it.
So it's not all doom and gloom. For teachers facing "serious weaknesses", here are four golden rules to help you through.
* Don't panic. You are not totally incompetent. The Ofsted definition of "serious weaknesses" reads, in part: "The school, although providing an acceptable standard of education, nevertheless has serious weaknesses in one or more areas of its work." Focus for a while on that "acceptable standard of education".
* Don't get bitter; get better. Accept the criticisms as a starting point. You may not agree with the verdict, but fighting it can be a waste of time and energy.
However, London primary head Mike Kent reckoned it was worthwhile. His complaint about his school's inspection was partially upheld - but it took 14 months and his school had not been judged "failing" (Friday, May 26, 2000 and June 29, 2001). True, St Aloysius Roman Catholic College in Islington was vindicated last year when its complaint led eventually to Ofsted withdrawing its report, removing the stigma of serious weaknesses and offering the college a fresh inspection, but such success is rare (TES, July 27, 2001).
More typical was the experience of Belmont primary school in Guisborough. The school's complaint took 13 months to be dealt with. It was partially upheld, but the school was still judged to have serious weaknesses (TES, December 7, 2001). Complaining is a serious distraction from your main purpose. Once your report is published, the clock starts ticking.
* Make up your mind about what you want. The experience of being in a school judged failing could be the end of your career. But only if you decide to let it. Focus. You have two years. And if you are ambivalent, if you are not prepared to work hard, you owe it to your colleagues to go immediately. Otherwise, take advantage of that extra money from the LEA; go on courses. While those who have been through the experience and come out the other side would not describe it as enjoyable, many agree that it was, in the end, positive.
"I became confident and pro-active, and staff enjoyed their work more"; "the staff became a stronger team; they displayed an urgency to achieve excellence"; "things became more enjoyable". Okay, all those quotes were dredged up by Ofsted, but I have no reason to doubt them. Any one of them could have come from the lips of teachers at my own school.
* Hang together, or be hanged separately. It may be unfair and not your fault, but it is not at all helpful to point the finger at others.
While you are busy pursuing feuds and vendettas, the clock is still ticking. In the darkest hours of our own purgatory we held a circle time for teachers. There were tears, but from it came a renewal of our team. We put behind us the blame and the finger-pointing, and promised each other respect, honesty and trust.
John Cosgrove is deputy head of St Mary's Catholic primary school, Penzance, Cornwall