Education: Parent power closes down school

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A Norfolk primary school faces likely closure after parents withdrew their children following a critical report. Andrew Buncombe reports on an ultimate expression of parent power.

Potter Heigham First School is silent. The two classrooms, their walls decorated with pupils' brightly coloured paintings and drawings, are empty. The playground, with its white markings for games and surrounding railings, is equally deserted.

Even the school secretary, Julie Crabb, has been sent home. "We are a school without pupils," she sighed yesterday.

"We don't really know what is going to happen. It really is a very sad situation. It will be very sad for the village if the school has to shut."

The situation, which resulted in the teachers turning up on Monday for the start of the new term but finding none of the 21 pupils there to teach, is the result of parents' concern about failing standards.

An Ofsted report carried out in July 1996 found that standards at the school, located within the Norfolk Broads National Park, were unsatisfactory in a number of subjects. An action plan was drawn up but return visits by the inspection team last October and November found that things had got worse rather than better. The inspector said teaching was unsatisfactory, that pupils' reading, writing and numeracy were not adequate, and called for special measures. "Pupils ... make poor overall progress during their time at school," the inspection concluded.

While this report was only published yesterday, parents were informed of its contents at a meeting with governors last November. The governors said that with their current resources - the school had just two teachers - it was impossible to deal with the shortcomings.

As a result, the parents of every pupil at the 104-year-old school decided to find alternative schools for their children, all aged between four and eight.

Lynne Sheppard, vice-chairman of the governors and a former teacher at the school, said yesterday: "... everyone is devastated at the potential loss of our local school but we understand that parents have to put the education of their children first."

Mrs Sheppard, who has had to find an alternative school for her own five- year-old daughter, said parents would rather have kept their children at the school and seen it turn around. "In the end they had no option. I don't think the local authority really did enough to help," she said.

Mrs Sheppard said one of the problems at the school had been the absence, through long-term sickness, of the headteacher, Sheila Sturman.

A spokesman for Norfolk County Council said yesterday that councillors were due to meet to consider a number of options. "The situation at the moment is that the school remains officially open even though there are no teachers or pupils," he said. "Of course, closure of the school is an option."

Councillor John Holmes, chairman of the education committee, said the authority had provided advice and support to the school. He added: "The critical role in providing a suitable standard of education must rest at school level."

The Department of Education and Employment said it was awaiting a report from the local authority and was monitoring the situation.