Education Audit: School's success comes down to class, says headteacher in debt

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The Independent Online

The Priory Church of England primary in south-west London looks like many other schools in affluent suburban areas.

Less than a mile from the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, and with a largely middle-class intake, you would imagine the Priory to be among the country's highest-achieving schools. It is, but it was not when Labour came to power in 1997.

The history of the 420-pupil school offers a lesson on why Labour should not rely so heavily on league tables and target-setting for measuring school performance.

In 1997, the Priory was a middle school for children aged eight to 12. Its catchment area was far wider and many pupils came from a working-class council estate in one of the poorest areas of the borough of Merton. Its scores in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds in maths and English were in the 60s, which meant nearly one-third of pupils failing to reach the required standard in both subjects.

Four years ago, all that changed through a council reorganisation. It became a primary taking three-year-olds into its nursery class and teaching them up to the age of 11. Its catchment area was confined to a more middle-class suburb and its results improved.

At present, 81 per cent reach the required standard in the English test and 73 per cent in maths. Within a couple of years, when all the intake to the former middle school will have left, Angeles Walford, the headteacher throughout the transition period, expects the scores to reach the 90s.

She cites the history of her school as one of the reasons she believes the Government has missed a golden opportunity to play fair with the nation's primary schools by refusing to go down the route taken by the Welsh Assembly and abolish primary school league tables and tests for seven-year-olds.

"Those schools with a middle-class intake, their children are always going to be on top of the league tables," she said. "That's the way of the world. But the problem is in those schools that face more challenging circumstances; no one will recognise the hard work they've done. I have never 'hothoused' these children to get through the tests and I will always refuse to do so. They come into the school articulate, they can count and they can read. Even in the reception class, I know they're going to be high achievers."

Mrs Walford was attracted to the school because of the challenge of working with its previous intake. She knew about educational failure; she failed the 11-plus. "My parents were immigrants and I didn't speak English at home," she said. "It was Spanish, from Gibraltar. They say it takes about seven years for a non-English speaker to be fluent in the language. I was a very late developer. I went to a comprehensive where the top three or four pupils could move up a grade. I did and I was able to take my O-levels."

She was excited when Labour swept into power in 1997. "This was a government that was voted in on 'education, education and education'," she said. "I think they do have a focus on education but unfortunately their focus is wrapped up in a political game and that's what gets in the way of their delivery.

"Theirs is government by SATs [the national curriculum tests] results and the league tables which have been so damaging to most children."

She acknowledges that standards have improved under Labour, but she believes it is has more to do with the compulsory literacy hour and daily maths lesson than the demanding targets set by the Government, and the league tables.

"What it [Labour] has done is that it has brought teachers up to scratch," she said. "On the technical side of being a teacher, it has provided training for delivering the literacy and the numeracy strategy. I am absolutely amazed at the quality of teachers we have today and the quality of teachers coming out of teacher training. I have great respect for the teachers. Even Ofsted [the education standards watchdog] has helped us to weed out what people were doing wrong and we do have good teachers today."

Mrs Walford is a keen advocate of the Government's attempts to reduce teachers' workload and has ensured the new contract for the profession has been implemented in her school. She has extra classroom assistants to free staff from the 25 administrative tasks transferred to assistants from the start of this term. These include collecting dinner money and chasing truants.

But it has come at a price. Her budget has plunged £120,000 into the red, and she is unsure whether she will be able to keep up her staffing levels. "I'm massively in debt," she said. "The local education authority is worried. The LEA's attitude is, 'We'll let you get away with it for one year'. If they come down on us, I will not be able to raise standards.

"But teaching has genuinely improved and the initiatives have been good. If we could just get rid of the league tables and replace them with inspirational assessment by teachers, that would [help] raise children's achievement."