A little fun can go a long way when it comes to learning

League table triumph for primary school in deprived area of Nottingham
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"We take them ice-skating or to a pantomime – or do dance and drama with them," said headteacher Jo Bradley. It is not the usual recipe for ensuring good performance by 11-year-olds in national curriculum tests. But at a time when a growing number of schools are recording figures showing that more than half their pupils fail to reach the required standard in maths and English – 885 this year compared with 798 in 2008 – it is surprisingly effective.

Yesterday's primary school league tables showed that Blue Bell Hill, in one of the most deprived areas of Nottingham, gets more out of its pupils than any other school in the country. The 240-pupil school finished top of the "value added" league table, which shows how much schools have improved on the predicted achievement of their pupils.

"Blue Bell Hill school is outstanding," its report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, stated. The number of pupils whose first language is not English is "very high" and there are a number of children from asylum-seeking families, but it still defies the odds.

"We have a very broad range of activities for the pupils, so as well as working hard at their academic studies, they enjoy themselves," said Mrs Bradley. The results are plain to see – 86 per cent of pupils reached the required standard in English (the national figure is 80 per cent) and 79 per cent in maths, the same as the national average. The school has also eschewed the idea of a "superhead" coming in from outside to turn things around.

Mrs Bradley started at the school 25 years ago – it was her first teaching job – and worked her way up until she became head. "Over the years we have been pushing [the results] up and pushing them up," she said.

Overall, the national results this year were disappointing – one percentage point down in English (from 81 to 80 per cent) and the same in maths (79 per cent). The number of schools achieving a "perfect score" – 100 per cent in English, maths and science – fell from 351 to 282, and the percentage achieving the required standard in both English and maths also dropped, from 73 to 72 per cent.

"Standards in our primary schools are now showing signs of slipping backwards," said Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws. "It is very worrying that the number of schools in which the majority of pupils left without achieving expected levels of progress had actually risen."

Nick Gibb, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, was even more scathing. His party broke the results down to the individual papers in reading, writing and maths to reveal that 38 per cent of all pupils failed to reach the expected level in all three. "There remains a huge problem with literacy in primary schools," he said.

"With so many children entering secondary school without any effective ability to read we are storing up problems with truancy and disruptive behaviour for the future."

Schools minister Diana Johnson pointed out that the results were still a vast improvement on a decade ago, when only 63 per cent achieved the standard in English. Maths had also got better, from 62 to 79 per cent.

Teachers' leaders criticised the tests as being an unreliable indicator of pupils' performance. As a result, most secondary schools re-test children when they arrive. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Every year we go through this ridiculous rigmarole with primary test results and school league tables. Teachers and pupils put in a lot of hard work but the results are of little use."

The National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers are threatening to boycott next year's tests, saying they distort the curriculum. Many teachers spend a large part of the final year of primary school coaching their pupils in the tests to ensure a good performance in the league tables.

At the foot of this year's tables was Hereford Steiner Academy, where parents boycotted the tests. But the message from the pupils at Blue Bell Hill is that schools do not have to become "exam factories" to do well in the tests. A little fun for the children along the way, its teachers argue, works wonders.