A prince turns into a frog

How did a Cambridge primary school, once seen as a model of its kind, decline so far that it failed its Ofsted inspection? Parent Andy Martin says the trouble was, no one could heard you scream
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The Independent Online
Take what is potentially one of the best primary schools in the country, the kind of school that turns out future rocket scientists and brain surgeons, and turn it into the kind of school that resoundingly fails its inspection and has parents deserting in droves. It sounds like a fairy tale in reverse, with the prince ending up as a frog. Unfortunately, it really happened to Newnham Croft in Cambridge.

Newnham Croft benefits from having some of the brightest kids in the country in its catchment area, the sons and daughters of Cambridge academics and other assorted intellectuals. Until recently it also enjoyed a reputation as a model school. The damning Ofsted report just published therefore makes for sobering reading. In describing the quality of education in key stage 1, the report offers a menu of adjectives including "unsatisfactory", "poor" and "totally ineffective". In maths, "there were no examples of good teaching apart from work with under-fives". As for physical education, the school even proves incapable of teaching its children to skip properly.

I have a child at Newnham Croft and spent more than a year on the PTA - before resigning. I like and respect a lot of people at the school and I wish I could pull my punches and put some positive gloss on things. But the horror story of how we got into this state deserves to be told in all its X-certificate gory detail, even if only to save others from the same fate.

In Newnham, until recently at any rate, no one could hear you scream. Parents would loudly object to the seeming inability or unwillingness of the school to deliver any structured curriculum. But the management turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. A few short years ago Newnham Croft was singled out by The Independent for its exemplary "open-door" policy. The trouble with the open door is that it is useless if there is a closed mind on the other side of it.

In terms of educational philosophy, the school took Rousseau's anti-Enlightenment theory of "negative education" all too seriously. Cutting and sticking, arts and crafts were OK; everything else (writing, for example) was "abstract". But children do not recognise this dichotomy: they are as interested in Sanskrit and particle physics as in scissors and Lego. Language and science are also games. All they need is to be taught how to play. I had the depressing experience not long ago of my child coming home from school with the pathetic result of two or three solid days of tapestry in his hand. "No one told me how I was supposed to do it," he sobbed. The idea of teaching anyone anything - even how to sew - has become anathema.

Some of the kids at Newnham Croft are intimidatingly bright. One five- year-old asked me: "How come Santa Claus has an 'a' at the end of 'Santa', when he is a man?" It was a brilliant question, which had never occurred to me, and we had to scour a few dictionaries before coming up with the answer. (The word is an American corruption of a Dutch import, "Sante").

Teachers have been fed a double dose of paranoia - with respect to both children and their parents. In the mythology, all Newnham parents are pushy academics who want to turn their kids into pint-sized professors. Speaking for myself, I would rather mine became a surfer. And all parents at large are asking for is a more balanced and flexible approach.

"You're attacking me!" cried one teacher when I dared to walk in through the open door and raise the deeply controversial Open Partition question. My son is part of a mixed year 1/year 2 group occupying adjacent classrooms. Theoretically, the partition between them can be either open or closed. But in practice it remains permanently open. There is always, therefore, a high level of two-way interference between the classes. "Restlessness or noise from the neighbouring class prevents pupils from concentrating calmly on the lesson material," says the Ofsted report, stating the obvious.

In other words, the teachers themselves, in religiously keeping the partition open at all costs and despite all complaints, had become the most disruptive element in the classroom. The school doesn't have an open-door policy, it has an open-partition ideology, as if it were actually against any quiet, studious environment.

Many of the parents (like me) are also teachers in one form or another, and so are naturally sympathetic to the staff against a common background of pressures and cuts. But the school had adopted an us-against-them fortress mentality. The parents were soon being blamed for any decline in the school's fortunes. This was a bit like accusing the passengers, who are jumping overboard, of causing the ship to sink.

The governors, some of whom were losing confidence in the school and withdrawing their children - a point the Ofsted report notes - still saw it as their prime responsibility to protect the head and to effect what appeared to be a Panglossian cover-up. In this culture of non-criticism, they quashed a request from parents for a questionnaire on the grounds that "parents are not the consumers of education". A more adversarial Parents Group organised its own questionnaire. The results, which largely anticipated the Ofsted critique, were presented to the head and governors in an emollient and conciliatory form. "Proud to be pushy" was out; "Partnership" was in. The only response from the head was to resign.

Unfortunately, he stands alone in falling on his sword. The irony of the post-Ofsted scene is that there is no mechanism for ditching those responsible for failure. At present, the team who brought the school to the brink of meltdown, completing the vicious circle of waning performance, vanishing parents, dwindling funds and decreasing staff, the very people who not six months ago appointed a teacher outed by Ofsted as incompetent, are still governing and sitting on the appointments panel which decides on the next head. They even appear to be considering an appointment from within the school.

In this situation there can be no more Mr Nice Guy. The only way to restore confidence in the school is for all the guilty men and women to own up and bow out. It is absurd for the agents of decline to present themselves as the architects of reconstruction. Similarly, those teachers who remain locked into a DIY anti-educationalist agenda should go. Only then will parents be convinced that it is safe to go back in the water. I will be convinced the day I see that partition close.

On a more positive note, Anne Campbell, our (prospective) Labour MP, is backing the parents' call to clear away all the dead wood. If this precondition is met, then it should be possible, with the built-in advantages the school enjoys, to turn things around. The frog can be turned back into a prince.

The author is a lecturer in French at the University of Cambridge.