Far from failing, Manor Park is succeeding in an unlikely setting. In the eight years since Eileen Dowd took over the headship of this neat and tidy primary not far from Aston Villa football ground in inner Birmingham, it has changed beyond recognition. Going grant-maintained in 1994 has helped to give the 380-pupil school a facelift and kept class sizes down to an average of 23 but, Mrs Dowd says, the biggest change has been in people's attitudes. "When I first came here,'' she recalls, "the children were apologising for living here, thinking that if the school was in Aston it couldn't be very good, whereas now they are quite proud of it. And [she touches wood] we don't have any of the discipline problems we used to."
The school's intake is a racial mix of black, white and Asian, but with one thing in common: social disadvantage. Around 60 per cent come from single-parent families ("They'll come in and say they've got a new dad"), unemployment is high, and where there are jobs they are often part-time and poorly paid. "Very often we are the only stable thing in their lives. To our parents the only way their children can get out of an area like this is through education,'' Mrs Dowd says. The school's glowing OFSTED report confirmed what many of the parents already knew: that Manor Park is giving their children a good start in life.
Manor Park's early years co-ordinator, Jan Catley, admits that the report was a welcome pat on the back for her and a staff of five full-time and two part-time teachers and nursery nurses. "It was very encouraging. We have put a lot of hard work in and it's nice that other people coming in from outside feel that we are doing it right. But no matter how prepared you are, being Ofsted-ed is still very stressful."
Following this official endorsement, Mrs Catley was chosen, on the recommendation of the school inspector, to join a dozen other early years teachers in contributing to a follow-up to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's booklet on government targets for five-year-olds. The document, which will be published at Easter, includes guidance on teaching materials and practice for under-fives. But Mrs Catley is modest about her work at Manor Park. "I don't think we do anything different from hundreds of other schools,'' she says. "We just do it better,'' quips a colleague.
The nursery classroom is a happy, busy environment lined with bold, colourful examples of the children's work. "We want the children to feel it's a bright, exciting place," Mrs Catley says. "And we want them to be excited about coming to school and to think of it as a place where they can have a go at everything, failure isn't a bad thing and it's all a new experience."
The school day for these four and five-year-olds is divided into small blocks of activities with set routines. "A lot of the routines and structures are to encourage children to be responsible. If you have high expectations of the children then they will rise to them." There are clear routines for tidying up so that all the children know where everything goes. Areas of the room are colour-coded, with special places devoted to different activities. To avoid over-crowding, children who want to use the home corner have to put on a headband. The reading corner is "where we use our ears" and the writing corner is decorated with handwritten signs. "Print is very important. Although the children can't read properly yet, we put up lots of signs and gradually they begin to pick up words," Mrs Catley says.
Children from the nursery spend time in the reception class to help them settle in when they transfer. Mrs Catley is sure that the 65 full-time and 26 part-time children who attend the nursery (it is heavily over subscribed) benefit from the experience in their later school careers. She has worked right across the primary age range, but early years is by far her favourite age group. "It's much harder work than other age groups. You can't think, 'I'm having a bad day, I'll give them some worksheets to do.' I love the enthusiasm of the children. If you can harness that enthusiasm then everything can be a learning experience. They love coming in to school and I love being involved with them and helping them learn how to learn."