Done and dusted

Phil Revell reports on a Merseyside primary that struggled through dark clouds of deprivation, dereliction and coal dust on its way to beacon status

West of the Liver building and out of the city, St Joan of Arc primary school isn't quintessentially Liverpool. Or perhaps it is. Just across the road is the huge Liverpool Freeport, and out to sea in the Crosby channel is the triangle of water where Second World War convoys would form up for their hazardous outward voyage across the Atlantic.

This is Sefton, high in the league table of socially deprived areas. It has 34 per cent male unemployment, and less than 3 per cent of adults have academic qualifications above GCSE. At Steve Sanderson's school, 60 per cent of pupils claim free school meals.

Mr Sanderson has been head of St Joan of Arc for 12 years. When the first performance tables for key stage 2 were published, he went out to buy a paper so he could see his school's position. He had to drive miles out of the catchment area before he found a newsagent that stocked the broadsheet titles containing the full tables. The school is easy to find: it's opposite a major coal terminal.

"That caused major problems, for us and the local estate," he says. After years of battling against coal dust, the estate was finally demolished in the mid-Nineties. "A lot of our children were dispersed across the city."

For many inner-city schools, the result would have been slow decline and closure. The buildings dated from the Thirties; the site was covered in rubble, residue from a defunct and demolished secondary school. Families were moving away. What other option was there?

"But the children were very happy here, and there was a high degree of parental satisfaction," says Mr Sanderson. Somehow, the money was found for a minibus, then another. Children were picked up in the morning and delivered to their school. At one point 25 families were using the service.

Meanwhile, Mr Sanderson was sorting out the school site. Rubble was cleared, and the authorities were persuaded to smarten up the site. Trees were planted and money was found for a sports field. "Once the site was acceptable, we switched our attention to standards," says Mr Sanderson. "We wanted to raise the quality of teaching." The methods will be familiar to many heads who have gone down the same route. Lessons are monitored, colleagues offer mutual support and critical judgment. Responsibilities are shared.

A major concern was the poor educational background of many of the parents, so the school launched "Start Right", a scheme in which one of the early years staff works with parents of pre-school children. "We run courses," says Mr Sanderson. "We don't tell them what they need; they tell us. It sends a powerful message to children when they see their parents studying."

To establish this patchwork of provision, the school has built links with the local authority, with businesses, with the Merseyside open college network - with anyone who was able to offer assistance. The result has been a steady roll, despite the volatile population shifts. The school is now a beacon school and Ofsted has called it "outstanding", with many strengths and no weaknesses.

This is a school that has established partnerships across Europe; as a result it takes part in a tri-country summer camp in Hungary.

St Joan of Arc may be a small primary with 200 on roll, but the children have language assistants from Belgium and Hungary. "We put no limit on what our children can achieve," says Mr Sanderson. "Now the parents are becoming ambitious for their children as well." And those parents include asylum-seekers and refugees. Sefton children are now learning alongside children from Mongolia, Ecuador and Kenya.

The school's story is one of several in a study of schools facing challenging circumstances published by the National College for School Leadership, which opens in new pound;28 million premises in Nottingham next week. Making a Difference sums up the leadership qualities and management interventions that have allowed heads such as Steve Sanderson to lift their schools.

And the coal depot? It's still there, and despite stricter controls it's still a problem. But a new housing estate is being built; dust or no dust, this is a school with a healthy future.

Making a Difference - leadership in challenging circumstances is available from the National College for School Leadership. Tel: 0870 0011155; www.ncsl.org.uk

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