Primary School Tables: Lessons in bucking the system

Richard Garner finds out what placed Oakridge Primary School at the top of the performance table
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The Independent Online

They focus on the four Rs at Oakridge Primary School in Stafford. What's the fourth one? The question you should ask is what the other three are as well – resilience, resourceful, reciprocal and reflective, says headteacher Paul Fisher.

They are the key to how the school is thriving at the very top of the primary school performance table with every pupil reaching the required standard in maths and English tests for 11-year-olds. By then, 78 per cent of them have attained the next level in English and 80 per cent in maths, which means they have reached a standard well beyond their years.

A "level five" – as the national curriculum terms the level beyond the required standard – means that, in English, they possess a fluency that is beyond just getting the answers right and proving they can read. In maths, it indicates problem solving skills, not just getting their sums right.

Resilience means never giving up in the quest for learning. "Persevere is the key word," says Fisher. He cites an example provided by one of his pupils, who had failed to understand a task he was doing, so he read it again. "I read it four times and I didn't give up until I understood what I needed to do," he told his teachers. "In the past I wouldn't have done that. I'd have just put my hand up and said I don't know how to do that."

Resourceful means making use of all available resources to find the answer to what you are studying. If children are studying at home, that will usually include their parents. Fisher, who has been head of the 240-pupil school for the past eight years, is particularly keen to encourage fathers to work with their children – a move that has been successful with the introduction of more projects for the pupils.

One educationalist who has had a great influence on the school is English adviser Gary Wilson – one of whose claims to fame is persuading billionaire businessman Sir Philip Green to take down posters in the foyer of his stores showing boys skateboarding with the caption "I'm lazy and proud of it".

"It sends out the worst possible message," said Wilson. "You can see boys arriving at school carrying nothing because their mothers are doing it all for them. The girls carry everything. The boys don't do so well in class because they can't think for themselves."

Oakridge appears to have cracked the problem by encouraging dads to help educate their children. Fathers then assume the same place as mothers as as educational role models.

It has been done through the "ganas project". Ganas is the Spanish word for passion – a word introduced to the school by entrepreneur-cum-leadership guru Sir John Jones to encourage children to show a passion for learning. "You couldn't really call it the passion project," reflects Fisher. "It might have the wrong connotation."

Once a term, each pupil is given a project to work on. In one class, seven-year-old Charlie Room has been studying the Indian weather and has been surprised to find it can get cold as well as hot in the country. Eight-year-old Louie Tolley discovered that India is the largest producer of avocados in the world and decided to make a spicy avocado dip for the rest of the class.

The school also stresses the importance of field trips – and regularly visits Liverpool and Ireland. Michael Collins, the IRA activist, was imprisoned in Stafford Gaol in the early part of the 20th century, and the school used this link to teach pupils about history. While on the trip, a 10-year-old student was moved to point out that perhaps if the British had not executed the dying rebel James Connolly then Ireland might have been a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

In short, visit Oakridge Primary School and you will find an institution that is not bogged down by repeatedly coaching its 11-year-olds to pass the national curriculum tests. Although Fisher acknowledges they did a practice test out of respect (another important R) for the children. It allowed them some idea of what they were supposed to be doing.

He is not a fan of the tests. "Philosophically, how can you make a judgement on a child's ability over a 40-minute writing test?" Fisher asks. "It's absolutely crass. No author in the world would write a book in 40 minutes.

"We voted 'no' in the ballot [held by the National Association of Head Teachers and National Union of Teachers over boycotting the tests last summer], but we discussed it with the children. The children felt they had done so much work for it already that they should do them. It is almost a rite of passage for them at the end of primary schooling.

"The governors, though, were fantastic. They would have backed us whatever we did."

He believes that, if the ballot had been conducted at the start of the school year in September rather than just before the pupils were due to take them, they would not have gone ahead. Legally, though, the unions had to carry out industrial action within a month of taking part in the ballot.

Katie Crockford, the school's deputy headteacher, adds: "We were very proud of the children, because they wanted to do well."

Fisher would like to see the tests replaced by teacher assessment, although he is not convinced the review set up by the coalition government will come to that conclusion.

"I find it astonishing that [the people] who come second in polls that show who the public think are the most respected professionals are the headteachers. Yet who comes under the biggest scrutiny and accountability? The headteachers."

There has been much talk from Education Secretary Michael Gove about his desire to give more freedom to schools – yet Fisher believes his school's success is down to the fact it has already declared itself free from the many myriads of advice to schools emanating the Whitehall machine. He has a very effective filing system for much of it: it's called the rubbish bin.

That, I suppose, is another R that singles Oakridge out. It has placed itself apart from any school that goes down the route of constant coaching for the tests solely to secure a good position in the performance tables, and has time for little but the traditional three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic.

By the way, of the other two Rs at the school, reflective means pupils – and staff – are encouraged to think about what they are doing, and reciprocal encourages working collectively on tasks.

Oakridge has proved that taking its own approach has been successful and the local residents agree. It now has 70 parents chasing the 30 places available at the school every year.