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How we did it

Nicky Willis tells how she and her staff pulled their school from the bottom of the league tables

I knew my first headship would be challenging, but not until the first half-term did I realise how challenging. Just after I became head three years ago, our SATs produced some of the worst results the school had seen. It had "serious weaknesses" and we were bottom of the primary league in Buckinghamshire, with a 30 per cent pass rate in English for 11-year-olds.

The first two terms were about getting the school's ethos right - what did we stand for, what were our values? We had a training day when we tackled aims with governors and staff. We looked at the behaviour policy. There was an underlying tension between the children - some of them were unpredictable, and ready to blow at any time.

We talked to the children and parents, and we set up a working group of governors and staff. We came up with some "golden rules" and introduced "golden time" - a period in which the pupils could do something broadly educational, but that they liked doing. If they followed the golden rules we'd award them stickers. We introduced a class of the week, and upped the profile of the house system so house captains got more responsibility throughout the school.

There was a uniform but it wasn't adhered to. Without making everybody go out and spend money, we said: "This is the uniform, this is what we expect. And no trainers." We wanted the children to take pride in themselves and their class.

The school needed repairs, so we badgered the county to do some work. Rotting wooden window frames were replaced with double-glazing, and a fence was put up in front of the school. Inside, we replaced some of the furniture and decorated the classrooms.

We went to town on assessment - we tightened up as much as we could, wherever we could, and made sure we were accurate about what we thought the children were achieving. We used that information to set a variety of targets for the next half-term.

The former head had put some systems in place, but we needed to tighten them and introduce new ones.

We were inspected again in November 2000 and we're now an improving school. Our SATs results have improved considerably - from a 30 per cent pass rate in English in 1999 to 68 per cent last year. This year's target is 75 per cent . Maths has been a struggle - from 26 per cent in 1999, to 48 in 2000 and then down to 43 in 2001. Science has gone from 41 per cent three years ago to 82.

We have 42 per cent of our children on the special needs register, and 14 statements - six per cent of the school. That is a huge proportion. But parents still compare us to schools that have much higher results.

My message has always been: we can offer your children so much.

Nicky Willis is head of Francis Edmonds school, Buckinghamshire. Interview by Martin Whittaker

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