Skip to main content

Off the beaten track

Meet the head who opened the windows of her stuffy school and set her pupils free. Martin Whittaker reports

Name Graveley primary, Herts

School type 4-11 voluntary-controlled primary

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

3 to 5 per cent

Improved results This year's key stage 2 results - 100 per cent in science, 87 per cent in maths, 93 per cent in English. Down from 1999 when school achieved 100 per cent across the board

Graveley primary school used to be run on very formal lines. "The infants all sat at desks facing the blackboard and the whole school worked in silence," recalls headteacher Margaret Robinson.

"And their ability was judged on how many spellings and tables they could do on a Monday morning. Those who got 20 out of 20 were the clever lot," she adds.

Today it is a very different school from the one she found when she walked in to start her first headship 15 years ago. The school's ethos is summed up by what Mrs Robinson looks for in new staff.

"When they apply, they come in with all this tight planning," she says. "I say, 'where have you planned for the children to daydream?'

"When do you have the most imaginative thoughts? Is it during the literacy hour, or is it while your mind wanders and you have two or three minutes to yourself? I think it's absolutely essential that children have time to daydream."

At first her holistic approach was not universally welcomed - some parents in this affluent Hertfordshire commuter village wanted her out. "First of all, I was a woman, and the previous person was a six-foot-odd secondary-trained man.

"It was formal and the parents who chose this school liked the formality. I inherited just three part-time temporary staff, no secretary, so really the school was empty. So I just came in and did my own thing."

She has confounded her critics. Back in 1988 the school had only 28 pupils and was threatened with closure.

Throughout the 1990s its numbers rose dramatically, and today it is hugely oversubscribed and has featured among the top-ranking schools in the country. Prospective parents even offered the school pound;1,000 to give their child a place.

Graveley primary is a small village school near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, with 106 pupils. Its children come from largely affluent families. Its key stage 2 test results are way above the national average.

The school's last Ofsted report found only one weakness - in systems for planning and assessment. Inspectors found that "the school has continued to build on its positive ethos and now provides an excellent climate for learning".

There is a buzz to the place. Staff are enthusiastic and eager to sing the school's praises. On the day The TES visited, children and staff were celebrating Diwali by tucking into curry made by an Asian parent.

One of Margaret Robinson's approaches has been to kick against the prescriptive rigidity of the literacy hour. "We did trial the literacy hour. We used the same book for three days and thought that if the children are yawning their heads off when they see it the second time, we should do something about that. Every person here is an individual with individual needs."

Instead the school has tailored the literacy hour to its own needs, bringing in other subjects like geography, history or religious education.

For example, this week pupils have been making masks and re-enacting the stories of Rama and Sita for Diwali.

Also when the national curriculum came in, Mrs Robinson decided to go against the grain and continue topic-based, cross-curricular teaching.

A topic will run right through the school from reception to Year 6 - this term the topic is "ourselves" - and it is then related to subjects such as English, maths, or history.

"The advice was that you teach in subjects," she says. "And lots of schools sadly are still doing that. We didn't do it because I don't believe in it.

"Where they're trying to reintroduce it into schools it's becoming quite a problem because it's hugely burdensome in the planning. Because we've done it for so long, we've got used to being efficient."

The school also has days when it puts the national curriculum to one side and pupils go out and about in the village, for example, to find out about the Victorians or solve a mystery. The school also offers French for pupils from reception upwards.

Margaret Robinson sets a lot of store by her staff. She believes one of the school's secrets is fostering good relationships both in the staffroom and with the pupils.

She says the school has become a good training base - one of its teachers is on the graduate teacher programme - and a number of its staff have moved on to become heads.

A solid relationship with the governing body has also helped. "They have been brilliant," she says. "The chair of governors keeps me on my toes, but she's always supported me when I'm down."

Sybil James, chair of governors, comes into school to meet the head every week. "It's extremely useful because it means I have an overview of what's happening in school.

"The governors do come into the school. They're interested in what's happening. But it's not monitoring in the sense of prying. It's always looking at where we are and where we're going."

Although the existing building is nearly 30 years old, there has been a village school on site since 1874. Mrs Robinson still has the school records handwritten by every headteacher in neat copperplate.

"In the olden days the things that used to annoy the heads were spellings, tables and mud being trampled indoors. And here we are so many years on.

What's changed?"

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you