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Ascot jaunt was not a jolly

School defends its unusual training day at the races in face of tabloid outrage. Adi Bloom reports

SENIOR staff at the primary whose teachers spent a school day at Ascot have defended their unorthodox training methods.

More than 70 teachers, governors and other staff at Westborough primary, in Southend, went to Ladies' Day last Thursday, as one of the school's five in-service training days. Its 729 pupils stayed at home. The outing generated tabloid outrage, with The Sun placing a pound;50 bet that truancy levels at the Essex school would rise.

Now Gerri Bennett, deputy head of Westborough, has written to The TES to defend the trip. "Why Ascot? Why not?" she writes. "All schools, but especially those working in challenging circumstances, cannot succeed without that intangible ingredient that the quick-fix approach fails to generate."

She also writes that the media coverage of the day at Ascot "ranged from informed comment to all-too-familiar teacher-bashing by the tabloids"."Television crews worked hard to generate negative, ill-informed comments from a few parents," she adds.

Ms Bennett said the trip reflected a school emphasis on staff cohesion and development. "The head is forward-thinking, imaginative and creative," she said. "If we'd stayed here cleaning cupboards, no one would have complained."

Head Jenny Davies received hate mail after the story hit the headlines. One anonymous message attacked her as "a disgrace to her profession", and criticised teachers for their dress sense. "Teachers aren't considered equal to other workers," said Mrs Davies. "When you meet targets, you celebrate. Should we celebrate with custard creams in the classroom, or like normal workers?"

She said the Ascot day had let staff mingle as equals in a neutral environment: "During training sessions in school, cooks are still cooking.

At Ascot, you couldn't tell who was headteacher and who was the lowest-paid worker."

Parent Jackie Querney, whose 10-year-old son, James, is in Year 5, said that, at her office, a similar away-day had been taken as personal leave, rather than being in work time. But, she said: "You have to look at the payback and out-of-hours services."

Mrs Davies said staff compensated for school-time outings by working extra hours. For example, they ran a breakfast club for pupils with working parents as well as a number of after-school activities.

But Maria Carlton, of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "Parents often have to take time off to look after kids on Inset days. Schools need to show that it benefits teachers. We're behind staff professional development, but this calls its value into question."

Last year, Westborough was ranked seventh of 28 primaries in Southend for key stage 2 test results. More than 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the expected standard in English and maths.

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