Could do better ... and did

Crook Primary was labelled the worst school in Britain. But all that has changed. Fran Abrams reports
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In the hall at Crook Primary School, the deputy head is conducting energetically as the year six choir practices for an end-of-term concert, belting out the words so that they ring around the building: "CONsider yourself ... AT home! CONsider yourself

Cheerful chatter drifts from classrooms where a mixture of quiet study, preparation for sports day and an impromptu recorder lesson are going on. A visitor who knew no different would assume this was just any normal, happy primary school.

But Crook, in County Durham, is not just any school and it probably never will be again. This was the first school to be labelled as failing under the Government's new inspection programme, the school that found the press camped outside its gates one morning and which was dubbed "The Worst School In Britain" by the tabloids.

Nineteen traumatic months on, staff will be having a quiet drink tonight to celebrate the end of their ordeal. Ministers are to announce today that the school is no longer considered "at risk."

The acting head, Anne Collingwood, broke the news two weeks ago after a repeat inspection: "Several staff burst into tears, then there was just a stunned silence. But I think we need to get it in writing before we think anything is finalised," she says.

The past 19 months have taken their toll on both the confidence and the health of the staff at Crook. The former head, Kathleen Brown, took early retirement on health grounds in May after going sick last July and Mrs Collingwood, who was her deputy, has been filling in. Three other staff out of a total of 14 left last summer, one through ill-health and two through early retirement, and others have been on long-term sick leave.

Inspectors who visited the school in October 1993 said that four out of 10 lessons were unsatisfactory and that pupils' behaviour was poor. Fortunately for the school, parents reacted with anger and disbelief and not a single child was withdrawn.

But while parents could vent their anger, staff had no choice but to accept the report's findings and to prepare an action plan. The curriculum, teaching, management and pupils' behaviour were all targeted.

Since then, scarcely a month has gone by without either the HMI or local authority inspectors calling to check on progress. A huge amount of time has been expended, largely in making sure that every school policy, every work schedule, is properly documented.

But there are highly visible changes, too. Inspectors criticised the quality of the displays in classrooms and corridors, but now a mass of colour hits the visitor at every turn. Almost every inch of wall is covered with pupils' work and the whole school feels brighter.

When the Independent visited in January 1994 there was a palpable sense of shell-shock. Pupils sat hunched over their books, visibly tense because of the presence of visitors, and when they were asked to sing in class the result was a barely audible murmur. Now they eagerly discuss their holiday plans and show off their work. A small boy in the reception class shadow-boxes playfully, boasting: "I bet my brother Tony's bigger than you."

After the inspection report some pupils were in tears, fearing a government "hit squad" was going to take them away. Children from other local schools taunted them that they went to the "dunce" school.

But Michael Wright, a governor and chair of the newly formed parent teacher association, never doubted his choice of school for his daughter.

"I never in a thousand years would have dreamed of taking her out. Support for the school has been absolutely total and I think that says an awful lot," he says.

"It was a very upsetting time but I don't think the children were affected as much as the staff," he says. The staff do seem to be at a loss to find a positive side to their experience, though Mrs Collingwood has been able to give advice to a number of other headteachers who were going through inspections. But the chair of governors, Bob Pendlebury, can see benefits, although the costs have been high.

"It is a better school in some ways because of the spotlight that has been on it. The staff have worked extremely hard to respond, but there have been casualties of course. Some people have been able to take the pressure and others have not been able to," he says.