The aroma of gingerbread is strong in the headteacher's room at Bethune Park primary school, Hull. Three elaborately decorated gingerbread houses are the source of some ire to headteacher Maureen Mather. "We entered them in a local competition but they did not even receive a commendation. They look so professional that the judges thought they were the teachers' work. We never thought to take the photographs showing the children making the houses each step of the way."
Given the area of Hull in which Bethune Park serves, the judges might be forgiven their suspicions. But had they questioned the children and delved deeper into the standards the school sets its pupils, or been aware of the school's recent OFSTED report, liberally sprinkled with "good" and "excellent", they should certainly have taken a second look. As it is, Maureen Mather, her staff and children, were reminded again about the need to provide evidence; a lesson they had already learnt in their attempts to improve pupil achievement.
Improving the school is continuous and inclusive at Bethune Park, involving teachers, support staff, parents, pupils and governors. "With a secondary school you can demonstrate improvement by exam results, but with a primary it is more difficult, especially as we don't yet have like to compare with like in the SATs," says Maureen Mather. "It is more of gut feeling that things are getting better, that children and staff are happier and working well."
Parents obviously regard the school as a desirable place: the 1988 roll of 154 has risen to 339, including 56 attending the nursery as part-timers, and 22 who attend the hearing impaired unit.
The atmosphere could well be that of a school under siege. A recent arson attack devastated a classroom, and all staff carry keys to lock and unlock as they go, following a knife attack on a teacher at a neighbouring school. One-third of the pupils come from the notorious Gipsyville Estate, a sorely deprived area of the city with high unemployment and crime levels.
Yet there is a quietness about the school. The classrooms are neat and the children's work is displayed effectively; the children well-behaved and happy.
"We wanted to make it a place where everything looks good so we always buy as high a quality as we can," says Maureen Mather. "The classrooms have all been carpeted and the rooms for the hearing impaired children have acoustic ceilings. In order to improve our wall displays, some of the teachers went to look at other schools noted for their good practice in this area and came back saying that we needed to colour co-ordinate the children's work with the backing paper. We did it - the difference was amazing. I think the children should see that we appreciate their work and want to show it off."
The OFSTED report found the school's standards often good and never less than satisfactory. "Learning is enhanced by the excellent attitudes of pupils throughout the school." The strides in pupils' achievement (this year the school is confident of some level four attainments in the SATs) have in part been due to the development of assessment which is used to help plan the curriculum.
Subject co-ordinators prepare half-term plans for the whole school. Day-to-day organisation of that teaching is left to class teachers, although they consult subject co-ordinators regularly and draw on their knowledge of the subject, of suitable resources available, places to visit and national curriculum requirements.
To help in this planning, co-ordinators draw on two in-school sources of evidence: a subject audit and annotated portfolios of pupils' work. The audit entailed training the co-ordinators to carry out OFSTED-style appraisals of the quality of teaching and learning, marking and record-keeping, and whether the teacher is keeping to the set guidelines. Each subject co-ordinator takes two to three days out of teaching to carry out this audit.
Among the problems revealed was a consistent fall in achievement among junior pupils.
"It is a nationally recognised problem because there is so much to achieve at key stage 2," says Maureen Mather. A programme has now been agreed to attempt to improve standards at this level.
The audit also showed investigative work in maths and science was weak. As a result, the maths co-ordinator devised a scheme concentrating on such work. The proportion obtaining level 2 or above in SATs in fact dropped - due to changes in assessment guidelines, according to Maureen Mather - but the school was encouraged that the percentages obtaining level 3 rose from 19 to 21 per cent.
Audit information is combined with that gleaned from six annotated pieces of work which makes up each child's portfolio. This gives a clear indication of how each child and each subject area is faring.
Collecting such evidence is not always comfortable. "It highlights our weaknesses," says Maureen Mather. "We were very disappointed initially but the audit proved to be a tremendous boost because it showed us how to tackle the problems and over a period of months we steadily improved."
The decision to adopt such a strategic, and time-consuming, approach in having one person responsible for all the medium-term planning for a subject was reached through discussion with all the staff who felt that there would be definite benefits.
Commenting on the morale in the school, the OFSTED report says: "There are excellent relationships in the school and teachers are sensitive to the needs of all pupils. The headteacher provides good leadership, in partnership with the chair of governors, and the governing body is very supportive of the school. Staff are hard working and relationships are excellent."
When Maureen Mather became head in 1990, she felt there were two sets of staff, teaching and non-teaching. Corroborated by the OFSTED report, she now ascribes much of the school's improvement in morale to the fact that she insists they are a team.
All staff attend meetings, and the chair of governors is daily in touch with the school. Parents are involved in many areas of school life, their comments on how to improve the school, such as a new footpath, are taken up. The pupils themselves are also putting forward their suggestions. "One class recently produced a letter with a folder of ideas," says Maureen Mather.
"They had thought of some very good suggestions, some of which we can manage. They already have the large floor cushions, but the swimming pool may take a little longer."