Education: An inspector calls, a school's morale falls: Crook Primary school thought it had nothing to hide from HM Inspectors. Next time it will not be so naive, says Fran Abrams

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The Independent Online
The children in the playground at Crook Primary school in County Durham look just like any other group of pupils enjoying a break from lessons on a sunny, early spring day. Games of tag are being played, small groups are chatting and the mood seems cheerful.

But inside the school there is a sense of shock. The hushed atmosphere contrasts sharply with the findings of inspectors who visited last November. Their report marked Crook out as the first failing school to require special measures under the 1993 Education Act. It said most pupils were badly behaved and some were aggressive, and that achievements were unsatisfactory in every subject of the national curriculum.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, last week gave the school six months to implement an improvement action plan. If this fails, it faces the possibility of being taken over by an educational association and forced to become grant maintained.

There was no sign of bad behaviour when the Independent visited. If anything, the children seemed almost too quiet, lacking vitality. Staff say they have been subdued since the report was published. Five years ago a report on the economically depressed area by HM Inspectorate of Schools said the difficult behaviour often found in inner-city schools was uncommon here, and that a general lack of interest was more often a problem.

In the reception classes at Crook, pupils were gathered on the floor around their teachers, listening to stories and singing songs so quietly they were barely audible. Year Five pupils were slowly completing a comprehension exercise from a worksheet, answering a few questions at a time, waiting for the teacher to mark them individually before moving on. In other classes, pupils were working very quietly.

'Miss, are you allowed to say 'well done' to us?' one girl asked me. Kathleen Brown, the headteacher, explained that this pupil had behavioural problems and was encouraged through praise for good behaviour and for the successful completion of a task.

Almost a quarter of the 370 pupils have special educational needs, mostly behavioural, but only four have formal special needs 'statements'. Staff feel the inspectors' criticisms failed to distinguish between special-needs pupils and others who were simply behaving badly.

Miss Brown said the school had done little to prepare for the inspection. The staff felt they had nothing to hide, and that it would be almost dishonest to polish up their performance in advance.

'I suppose we went into the inspection very naively. It won't happen again. We will make sure that we are better prepared for it in future,' she said.

The publication of the inspectors' report came as a shock both to the school and to the wider community, not least because staff were forbidden to tell parents of its contents until they had been announced to the press. Children arrived at school to find a crowd of photographers outside, and several burst into tears because they thought a government 'hit squad' was going to take them away.

Parents' anger at being kept in the dark soon turned on the inspectors, who they felt had misjudged the school. The head of the nearby Parkside Comprehensive, which takes most of Crook's pupils, said standardised tests showed no difference between them and pupils from other primary schools. Parkside was given an excellent report by inspectors when it was visited, also last November.

Despite the school's reservations about the inspectors' findings, staff, governors and parents are working with the local authority to address their criticisms. The plan promises clear guidelines on behaviour, in- service training for staff in the areas where they are weakest and systems to ensure that the national curriculum is fully implemented. Pupils will be encouraged to participate, for example, by taking more responsibility for their classrooms and by displaying their work around the school.

In response to the widespread attack of nerves which events at Crook have engendered, the education authority has set up a scheme to help staff in other schools to prepare for inspections. Keith Mitchell, director of education for County Durham, says local headteachers are now anxious about forthcoming visits from the inspectors and are asking for help.

The county now aims to offer the equivalent of two days of an adviser's time to each school before it is inspected. Schools would not be able to hide their faults from the inspectors for an entire week even if they tried, officials say, but they do need to know how to put their best feet forward.

Headteachers feel more confident if they have studied the framework for inspections and know in advance how they will explain each area of their work to the inspection team.

Mr Mitchell is resigned to the reallocation of scarce resources which is needed to carry out the work. 'Heads now say that preparing for inspections is the top priority,' he says. 'We have learnt it is a ritual dance and that you have got to learn the steps.'

(Photograph omitted)