Angela's angels: How one woman took a school from the dog house to top of the class

In 2001, St Mellion in Cornwall was in the doldrums. Now it is praised to the skies – thanks to Angela Palin, the primary head of the year. Francis Beckett went to see her

If they gave awards to head teachers with an instinct for recruiting Renaissance men and women, it would be easy to see why Angela Palin was primary head teacher of the year in 2009. Within half an hour of arriving in her tiny Cornish village school, I met Rob and Hayley.

Rob started his association with St Mellion CofE School when he and his minibus won the contract to transport children there. He got on really well with the pupils. Now, when he drives them to school, he parks his minibus and becomes an assistant teacher. Oh yes, and he runs the chess club.

Hayley is a teaching assistant in the mornings, a lunchtime supervisor later, then she updates the school website.

Jo, the school secretary, teaches cycling proficiency and half the teaching staff take all 59 pupils once a week to the pool to teach swimming. There was a mother in the school all day when I was there, filling in for an absent teacher, and other mothers teach netball and pop in and out of the school all day.

"Everyone is so willing to offer the children everything they have got," says Palin. "I do see potential for people to bring other skills.I just have to be around and be grateful. In a bigger school the head might not know what people can offer. We have an open door policy, parents can come in at any time."

This is a skill that the county has persuaded her to extend to other schools in the area, and Palin has become executive head of another CofE school in the next village, St Dominic's.

Palin is a tall, exuberant woman with the noisy, infectious, larger-than-life jollity that you find in many successful primary teachers. You don't so much walk through the small school with her as get dragged along in her slipstream. After training at what is now Canterbury Christ Church University, in Canterbury, she taught in Kent for 10 years and had two sons before moving to Cornwall where she taught part-time.

Soon, Cornwall County Council had her marked out as someone who might be the solution to some of the county's problem schools. One of these was St Mellion, which Ofsted diagnosed in 2001 as having serious weaknesses. Palin came as acting head in January 2002, and head a year later.

By 2007 Ofsted was raving about the place. "Six years ago it had serious weaknesses and an uncertain future," said the report. "Two years later, the weaknesses had been resolved and sound foundations laid. Since then, strong and very effective leadership and the concerted efforts of everyone involved have seen the school go from strength to strength."

Ask most heads how they transformed their schools, and they give a ready-made answer, sometimes too pat. But Palin goes silent , then says the last thing I expected to hear: "I had very good support from the county. They had a strong input into the action plan." I think she succeeded partly because she is quick, intuitive, and likes people. The process was less cerebral than with some other heads.

One thing she changed radically was the building. Outside, this typical small 19th-century rural school, built in 1891, looks as it always did. But the play area, with its lavish equipment, is new. Inside, the building has been brightened up – it used to be oppressively dark.

Most parents walk in with their children and Palin knows them all – their families, illnesses and lives. The school is, she says, "first and foremost a community school". It has a mixed intake, including the children of well-heeled professionals, but with one in 10 poor enough to qualify for free school meals. There are just two classes. One class has five- to seven-year-olds (reception and Years 1 and 2) and the other has seven- to 11-year-olds (Years 3 to 6). So, in each class, with 30 or so children, teachers have to cope with a huge range of knowledge and ability. It's a challenge, made easier by having more staff per child than you would get in a bigger school.

Groups of children are set different work, and teaching assistants help different groups. Children don't have to work in fixed year groups. "It becomes crucial that you know where each child is at," says Palin. "Behavioural problems are easier to deal with here. Often when children misbehave they're shouting for attention, but they don't have to shout loud to get noticed here." The whole school can fit into one classroom for assembly, which gives you a feel of how small it is, and how comfortable everyone is with one another.

The added value performance, as well as scores in English, maths and science, were above the county and national averages in 2007, but below them in 2008. There is some heart-searching going on, but Palin points out that in so small a school, one or two poor scores can bring the average down.

The federation with St Dominic's is driven partly by government desire to federate schools under one head. But it is also a response to problems at St Dominic's, three miles from St Mellion and with wonderful views of Dartmoor. In theory it is slightly bigger, with three classes instead of two, but it is under-subscribed and has only 47 children.

It will be a "soft" federation. Each school will have its own governing body. St Dominic's has poor outside facilities, and its children will be able to go to St Mellion, with its splendid outdoor play equipment. "I've got Rob and his bus," says Palin.

St Dominic's has a remarkably unlovely building with no kitchen. Most of its children live in the village – the school's local reputation does not encourage people to make a journey there. Palin hopes to change that.

Since winning the National College Award for head teacher in 2009 she is something of a local celebrity, which will help bring more applications to St Dominic's.

St Dominic's came out of special measures in 2006 and Ofsted rated it as satisfactory in 2008. There is some way to go, says Palin. "I've been at St Mellion for seven years, I appointed most of the staff, and I was starting to wonder what came next." Well now she knows.

Anyone can nominate a head teacher for a Teaching Award at www.teachingawards.com. There are 11 other categories and the deadline is 1 March.

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