Weston All Saints in Bath is one of the UK's top-performing primary schools - so what's its secret?
A timetable rich in art, music and drama boosts pupils' performance across the curriculum, its head tells Richard Garner.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 12 December 2012
It is not the sort of thing you read in the normally sober reports of the education standards watchdog Ofsted. It recorded that the children at Weston All Saints Church of England school in Bath had a habit of bursting into song as they went to their lessons. The schools watchdog was not complaining about rowdy behaviour, mind you. Far from it.
"Pupils enjoy school from the start," its report said, "epitomised by one class spontaneously singing while walking from assembly back to their classroom. Pupils are rightly proud of their work and achievements."
The school, which will be one of the top-performing state schools in the country when the Government's primary schools performance tables are published today, prides itself on the way it puts creativity at the heart of the curriculum.
Every teacher recruited by the head teacher, Anne Bull, is chosen because of that little bit extra they can bring to the school. One is an artist in her spare time, another works with sculpture, a third has his classroom walls littered with Lowry-like prints that were done by his pupils.
"The academic standards are the thing you have to bring to the school," she says. "It's all very well saying, 'let's have a creative curriculum,' but you have to deliver the standards alongside that. Having said that, if you have children who have been inspired by a music lesson and they are feeling good about themselves and they then go into a maths lesson, it's not surprising if they do well."
The deputy head teacher, Sarah Hall, agrees. "There is a lot of research that supports the view that children do better academically if they are involved in creative activities. If they've been involved in something creative and they're feeling great, they feel as though they can do anything, and they do well."
The proof of the pudding would appear to be in the eating as far as Wasps – as the school is known because of its acronym, Weston All Saints primary school – is concerned.
This year's results show that 98 per cent of 11-year-olds achieved level four or better in their English national curriculum tests (the standard they are required to reach) and the figure for maths was 96 per cent.
For the past few years, their results have been consistently good – way above the average for the country of 80 per cent. In one year they even attained the magic 100 per cent in maths. In addition, 56 per cent in each subject reached level five – the standard you would normally expect of a child who had been in secondary school for at least a year.
It was not always like this, though. When Anne Bull first arrived at the school more than 20 years ago, she inherited two schools – an infants' and a juniors' – and was given the task of amalgamating them.
"The two schools didn't speak to each other," she says. "When I came to have a look, the police were parked up at the top. It was one of those schools that were called 'sink schools' in those days. They said to me, 'You don't want to come here'."
Diplomatically, she adds: "It was an interesting situation."
At the time, the two schools combined had just 200 pupils – the new amalgamated school is now flourishing with 460 pupils and is still having to turn parents away.
On the day I visit, year six (10- and 11-year-olds in their final year at primary school for those not familiar with the jargon) are auditioning for parts in their Christmas nativity play, which they have written themselves. The potential Josephs and Marys look particularly animated as they go through their paces.
Their teacher sounds like a judge from Strictly Come Dancing or Britain's Got Talent when she says: "I've got some hard decisions to make." (Not surprisingly, the school has held its own version of Britain's Got Talent called Wasps Have Got Talent, which was modelled along the lines of the television show).
For her efforts in turning the school round, Anne Bull was the recipient of the Head Teacher of the Year Award in the annual teaching "Oscars", sponsored by Pearson Education and shown on BBC 2. In addition to her role as head teacher of Wasps, she is also involved in helping out three other primary schools and organising a music festival for primary schools in Bath.
"It has been fabulous working with Anne," says Sarah Hall. "It has been an absolute delight to be able to celebrate so many, many things she's been involved with at the school. She has a long history of being a head teacher and through her young children have had a fabulous deal here."
Ofsted says of the school's achievements: "More pupils are now reaching the higher level of attainment. Pupils throughout the school are making good progress both in their academic work and in their personal development. The quality of pupils' writing develops well from the moment they enter school."
The report is quick to praise the efforts of teachers. "The majority of marking, especially in English, is helpful in that it gives pupils advice on how to improve... Despite the school's strong focus on raising standards in English and mathematics, it has maintained a very broad curriculum that gives a high profile to the expressive arts and in particular music and arts... Pupils make a strong contribution to local arts events and festivals."
"Part of the secret is getting the right teachers," says Ms Bull. "I particularly select the teachers who have something to offer as well as good classroom teaching. I ask them, 'what can you bring with you?' Nearly all offer something extra in the arts – sculpture, painting, acting."
She also sets out with the aim of recruiting an equal number of male and female teachers – a rarity in today's primary schools when men have often in the past been considered an endangered species in schools. Why does she think primary schools often have difficulties in recruiting men? "Because they're all here," she quips.
It has led to some romances being triggered by working at the school – and this is good for keeping up school rolls, too. Rachel and Mike Snook, for instance, have been working at the school for 18 and 16 years respectively. Rachel is currently working a four-day week at the school and does an evening class once a week developing her print-making and lino-cutting. It is why she stays at the school, believing it would be more difficult to marry the two in a less flexible environment.
Anne Bull was one of the youngest head teachers in the country when she was first appointed as a school leader to a tiny village primary school with 32 pupils on Salisbury Plain. "I was 28 at the time," she says. Her first battle – successfully won – was in campaigning to keep the school open in the face of pressure to make cuts.
Now, more than 20 years on, her enthusiasm for school leadership has not dimmed and there is no danger of any closure threat now as Wasps expands to meet the ever-growing demand from parents to send their children there.
This year's national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds produced the best-ever results in both maths and English.
The percentage reaching the required standard in maths shot up four percentage points to 84 per cent (the highest ever) while in reading the figure rose three percentage points to 87 per cent (equalling the highest figure of four years ago).
Both, though, were behind the level set by the pupils at Weston All Saints Church of England school of 98 per cent in English and 96 in maths.
Overall, four out of five children achieved the required standard in each subject. More than 500,000 children sat the tests.
This year's tests were the first to be taken following a Government review of the test and, for the first time ever, there was no externally marked writing test. Teachers' assessments showed an improvement, with 81 per cent reaching the required standard compared with 75 per cent last year, when it was externally marked.
The percentage of pupils achieving the top grade (level five) also rose this year, from 43 per cent to 48 per cent in reading and from 35 per cent to 39 per cent in maths. Again both figures were behind the Wasp's score of 56 per cent for each.
Next year sees the first ever specific test in spelling punctuation and grammar for 11-year-olds.
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