Struggling primary is transformed into pioneering eco-school

The 10- and 11-year-olds in Year 6 were shuffling into assembly, mumbling and muttering as they went, when suddenly a voice told them: "In my assembly you line up outside and I let you in – and get your hands out of your pockets."

A new era had dawned for Howe Dell primary school in Hatfield, Hertfordshire with the arrival of Debra Massey as the school's new head. The children soon learnt that it was not just about being on their best behaviour, but about having fun and enjoying their lessons too.

When she arrived four years ago, she was confronted by a school where between seven and nine children were excluded a year – quite high for a primary school. Attendance was also low, at about 88 per cent, and only 21 parents had put their children forward for the 30 places on offer at the school. There were only 150 pupils on roll.

Since then, it has undergone a transformation: from narrowly escaping being placed in special measures by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, it is now described as "good" in every aspect of its provision.

The proof of the pudding comes in this year's primary school performance tables, in which the school will register that nearly half its 11-years-olds achieved Level 5 (the level above the standard of achievement for an 11-year-old and the equivalent to the performance of a 14-year-old) in English. In reading it was 60 per cent and writing – traditionally the weak spot for 11-year-olds – 39.3 per cent.

Howe Dell is also proud of its "value-added" measure, which gauges how much a school has improved the performances of its pupils since their arrival. Its score was down in the eighties or nineties – 100 indicates that a school has achieved what is expected of them. Now Howe Dell has moved to 100.6, which represents a significant improvement.

"When I arrived, some previous members of staff were expressing the feeling, 'You can't really expect much more from these kind of kids'," says Massey. "Now, I was threatened with exclusion by the time I was 11, and I don't accept that."

The parents, too, were reluctant to engage with staff and talk about their children's education. "They only came into the building if there was a problem," she says.

One of the first innovations introduced at the school was that all the teachers went out to meet the parents as they came to collect their children and greet them and tell them how their children got on at school.

"The body language from some of the parents was interesting – they were very, very wary of this kind of smiley approach,"adds Massey.

Gradually, the barriers were broken down and parents became involved with the school – so much so, that at the first parents' evening afterwards, when it was mentioned there were two vacancies on the governing body, hands went up to fill them within a moment.

Word got around about the school, and the result was some 100 applications for those 30 Howe Dell places the following year. The school has now moved to a two-form entry system – taking in 60 pupils every year – and still has to turn many away. Around 120 are now applying for places every year.

Howe Dell has more than double the number of pupils it had four years ago and has seen a big rise in the number from ethnic minority groups, which now make up around 30 per cent of the school's population.

The school has also rewritten the curriculum to make it more interesting for the children and to stimulate their interest in learning.

Nowhere was this more marked than in writing. Photographer Ian Green was invited to talk of his exploits trying to photograph tigers. It seemed to capture the youngsters' imagination and the classroom walls are now adorned with pieces written by the children describing their favourite animal.

"You must give children the chance to be inspired by what they are writing," says Massey. Her achievements at the school have now been recognised: she won an award for regional primary school head of the year in the national Teaching Awards, launched by Lord Puttnam, the film producer and former education adviser to successive Labour Secretaries of State for Education.

The changes at the school have coincided with its move to new buildings. It has quit the "slightly preppy" atmosphere of the historic building it used to occupy to take up residence on a site about a mile-and-a-half away, which has been billed as one of the first eco-schools in the UK. It has an outside classroom on the roof where rainwater is collected in the gap between paving stones to flush the toilets.

The school also has a revolutionary seasonal heat transfer system that absorbs heat from the sun via a network of pipes under the playground, which is then stored in thermal banks beneath the school and released to warm the buildings during winter.

Then there is "Kingfisher Island", a natural habitat frequented by growing numbers of birds and animals where pupils can observe wildlife. There is also a wind turbine that provides electricity.

All this is helps the pupils improve their knowledge of the environment. They even have their own so-called eco squad, which gives each class two representatives who can propose environmental initiatives at the school.

The improvement in Howe Dell's performance predates the move the new site – witness the fact that exclusions went down to nil within a year of Massey's arrival. Attendance is now up at 95 per cent.

However, the new site has helped put the school on the national map – with its new curriculum and its emphasis on the environment having been sent to every primary school in the county, and being nationally available through the Hertfordshire County Council website. The transformation of the curriculum at Howe Dell school could be replicated at a school near you in the very near future.

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