Ignoring ministers is secret of a primary school's success

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The Independent Online

The head of the school that ranked top of today's primary school league tables attributed her success to "ignoring" most of the Government's flagship literacy and numeracy strategies.

Barbara Jones, head of Combe Church of England Primary School, a tiny village primary near Witney in Oxfordshire, urged teachers to trust their own professional judgement about how best to teach children to read, write and add up. Every 11-year-old at the school was at least three years ahead of their age group in this year's English, maths and science tests - making it the top ranking primary out of more than 20,000 in England.

The headteacher's remarks came as Education Secretary Ruth Kelly published a review into teaching of reading in schools which called for increased teaching of phonics. But Mrs Jones warned ministers against jumping on the phonics "bandwagon", arguing that children learn to read in different ways.

It was the second time in three years that the school has topped the elite league table measuring how many 11-year-old pupils reach the level normally expected of 14-year-olds.

But Mrs Jones said the Government's strategies were "eroding teachers' confidence". She said her school did not follow the daily literacy hour or numeracy programmes.

"We don't use the literacy or numeracy strategy as prescriptively as we have been asked to," she said.

"We use a variety of approaches and that's where I think the Government has got it wrong in that they advocate one way and then a few years later they suggest another way.

"Phonics is not the only answer. There isn't one ideal way of teaching reading. Children do not all learn in the same way because we are all different. It is a pity that people jump on these bandwagons and quote examples of schools that see their results increase.

"You have got to use a bit of common sense. We don't rush things. If it is going to take a fortnight to do something it is going to take a fortnight. The problem is when you take four days just because the literacy strategy or some other directive says you should. We have never done that. I think what they are doing is eroding teachers' confidence.

"I just feel that sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bath water."

Overall, this year's tables showed that 79 per cent of pupils reached the level expected of 11-year-olds in English, 75 per cent in maths and 86 per cent in science. This represented one percentage point rises in English and maths and no change in science.

Record numbers of schools managed to get all their 11-year-olds to the required standard; 229 schools achieved "perfect" scores, up from 190 last year.

However, the head of this year's most improved school urged the Government to scrap the league tables arguing that the rankings were demoralising for teachers and pupils whose schools were at the bottom of the tables.

Eastborough Junior Infant and Nursery School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, nearly trebled the number of pupils passing the national tests in English, maths and science between 2002 and 2005.

But Nicola Roth, the headteacher, said that although she was "really proud" of her school's achievement, she remembered how "hurtful" it had been to be ranked at the bottom of the tables.

"I don't think league tables achieve any purpose," she said. "Lots of other schools have worked really, really hard and will not get the acknowledgement they deserve. It would be better if league tables did not exist.

"Three years ago we were on the bottom. That was really hurtful. I would hate for any other school to have to go through that," she said.

"As a school we are celebrating. But I would rather it was just abolished. It just does nobody any good."

The school achieved 247 out of a possible 300 points in the national curriculum Key Stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds in today's tables. This was a dramatic improvement from 2002, when the school's score was just 85.

This year's tables also showed that the school with the worst truancy record was Braybrooke Primary, in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, which has been threatened with closure after an influx of traveller children.

The school had a truancy rate of 8.7 per cent - more than 20 times the national average for England.

Ken Sharman, the headteacher, defended his school's record and said that a high absence rate was inevitable because so many children went travelling with their families during the summer. "It's never ideal in an educational sense," he said. "But then, that is where we are. Ofsted said we are doing a good job. We simply teach the children we have in front of us. I am not here to make judgements. We would do precisely the same for any child."

'We constantly challenge the children'

Barbara Jones. Head, Combe Church of England Primary School

A rich curriculum and a refusal to spend too much time preparing for the national tests is the secret of success for Combe Church of England Primary School.

Barbara Jones, the headteacher, said that despite its idyllic Cotswolds setting, the village school, did not serve an exclusively well off community.

"We are not the green welly brigade here," she said. "We do have a very mixed catchment. Some of them join the school well below average but because we constantly challenge them they all achieve well by the end.

"Through the school we spend an enormous amount of time getting the children to express their ideas and clarify their thoughts verbally. This makes their vocabulary very good from a young age. It helps tremendously later on with reading, writing and maths but also all the other subjects.

"We are not hot housing them. People sometimes think that to get these results we must do nothing but get them to practice for the tests. But the only way to get them achieving at such a high level is to give them a broad and varied curriculum."

'We needed different teachers'

Nicola Roth. Head, Eastborough Junior, Infant and Nursery School

Three years ago Eastborough Junior Infant and Nursery School was at the bottom of the league tables. Pupils, parents and some teachers at the primary school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, had low expectations and academic results had slumped.

The local population had changed as white pupils left the school and were mainly replaced by children from Pakistani backgrounds, but the school had not changed its strategies to deal with the new challenges.

"Our community at the time had low expectations," said Nicola Roth, the headteacher.

"There were issues with the teaching. There were issues with the leadership and management and the changing population... We needed different resourcing and different teachers."

After a radical overhaul the school has nearly tripled its results. Ms Roth said getting parents involved had been crucial. The school set up English and IT classes for parents and made a point of ringing home regularly with good news, as well as telling parents when their children should be doing better.

Sarah Cassidy

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