The best school in England

Shenington Primary School's extraordinary success rate is down to one simple secret: 'expecting more than is required'. By Ben Russell
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The Independent Online
IT IS the archetypal village school.

Shenington Primary sits in the picturesque heart of the Oxfordshire countryside. The children play out on the village green during their breaks from lessons and lunch arrives from the village pub across the road.

The classrooms have windows that are set in frames of stone, with light pouring in through the stained glass. The primary school's 82 children, drawn from Shenington and the nearby village of Alkerton, quietly focus on their work, while parents drop in to help out. It is an idyllic scene.

Shenington School is at the very top of the league tables, the only primary in England where every child has reached their expected standard in maths, English and science tests for four years running.

Like many of the top performers in today's Primary School League Tables, Shenington is a small, rural primary, serving a largely well-heeled area. The school is not selective, but hard to get into; parents are enthusiastic, keen for their children to succeed and prepared to give up their time (and dig into their pockets) to help.

Each of the school's infant classes of 15 usually has four adults, a teacher, a learning-support advisor and two volunteer parents.

The financial situation is healthy, although the school is facing a 10 per cent cut because of the loss of its grant maintained status. At a recent auction of promises, parents raised pounds 4,000 in a night.

The head, Coral Jessop-Burnell, is the school's only full-time teacher. The rest of the six staff are part-timers, but they are all specialists, allowing the school to run a secondary-style timetable with specialist teachers teaching their own subjects.

"People want to know what our secret is," says Mrs Jessop-Burnell. "The secret is expectations; we simply expect more than is required.

"We teach to level five [one level above the expected standard of an 11-year-old] and we expect them to reach level five. Some of them get to level six."

The children know exactly what the national curriculum tests are, and also know exactly what level they have reached. The teachers tell them so.

Their exercise books are all marked with a goal in mind - and the level the extra skills will get them. For example, "Use paragraphs and you'll get level four."

But the school does not stick rigidly to New Labour's literacy and numeracy hour. The school teaches maths and English four days a week, using the extra time to broaden the curriculum.

There is a lot of time for sport, with after-school and Saturday matches - and the cups on the classroom windowsill to show for it. A volunteer also comes in to teach French and Latin. The school has a choir, an orchestra and a band. There are computers liberally scattered around, a fast ISDN Internet line and video conferencing is next.

"We are not into triumphalising," says Mrs Jessop-Burnell, who has had her fair share of favourable publicity at the school. "I just feel we do our job to the best of our ability."

'We look forward to school'

Rebecca, 10

"Shenington School is a small school but we do not think small. Everyone works really hard to the top. We work in a team adding something different every day. We sometimes have treats on our busy days."

Sophie, 9

"I think Shenington School is at the top of the league table because our teachers and parents expect us to work hard and do well."

Cherry, 8

"I like my school because the teachers are friendly. I also like my school because we learn a lot in one day. In some lessons the teachers go over what they are teaching us again and again until we are really good at it.

Victoria, 8

"We have homework every night for 20 minutes and 20 minutes of reading. I love reading but some of our other homework can be hard. But we always do it and even if we can't the teachers do not get cross."

Amy, 8

"Our head mistress makes us look forward to coming to school. We can earn 'Well Done' Stickers on a Monday."

Jessica, 8

"Our teachers make our lessons interesting and fun. I love my school."

Thomas, 8

"On a Wednesday we have chess club. On Tuesday we have choir. On Monday we have swimming at two o'clock in the afternoon and the last thing we do is on a Saturday. We have football practice at 10 o'clock in the morning."

Imogen, 6

"I like the school because the school is small and friendly. My teacher is called Mrs Iversen. She teaches me to play the recorder which I enjoy and I like singing songs. On Wednesdays I play chess. School is very interesting. We learn a wide variety of subjects. I enjoy using the computer. I have lots of friends at school. The school has a no bullying policy which I think is good. My school has very high standards.

Our school moto is excellence through endeavour."