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I think this Prospero's a plonker!

Letting parents come as they please to learn beside children has led to a jump in results... and the odd Educating Rita moment. Martin Whittaker reports

At Arbourthorne community primary, staff are used to parents dropping in at any time - even right in the middle of lessons. Sheila Haigh, the head, says her open-door policy has helped to kickstart improvement and broaden opportunities for adult learners at a school that faces challenges in a deprived area. The school has become a model of parental involvement, and even features in a new Department for Education and Science video on the subject.

The policy has also led to scenes reminiscent of Willy Russell's Educating Rita. Mrs Haigh tells of observing a newly-qualified teacher giving a lesson when a mother studying The Tempest for GCSE English came in to use a computer. "She came in and asked if she could do her homework there. I looked at the NQT and said are you all right? He said fine and she went pounding away at her work.

"As the lesson was progressing, she looked over the top of her computer and said 'I think this Prospero's a plonker!' " Staff have learned to live with parents in the classroom and developed an easy rapport with them. Teachers and parents even go off together on coach trips to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.

And every day a group of mums comes in to cut up pineapples, mangoes, apples and bananas to make the children fruit salad for morning break.

New teachers are warned of the school's unorthodox approach at interview.

"When they come to the school we say to teachers this is what we do here.

This is what we are," says Mrs Haigh. "If you don't like that, don't apply for the job."

Arbourthorne is on a deprived estate two miles from Sheffield city centre.

It was formed in January last year from a merger of a nursery, infant and junior school, and takes pupils aged 3-11.

Mrs Haigh became head of the junior school in 1999, when it was in special measures. It came out in January 2002, and the newly- merged school is described as "transformed" in its latest performance review.

Five years ago she found the school in a sad state of repair, with poor behaviour and parents kept at arm's length. "It was very poorly," she says.

At the school 46 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, and some 42 per cent have special needs. Its learning support unit takes children at risk of expulsion from neighbouring schools, and it has another special unit for children with significant and complex needs.

Key stage 2 results are below average, but have improved. Four years ago 31 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 42 per cent in maths and 46 per cent in science. Last year the results were 52 per cent, 52 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

Much of the credit for the involvement of parents goes to Joe Brian, deputy head, who has a background in adult education. As English co-ordinator he began an innovative family-friendly homework project with year 3, allowing parents and children to work together on homework.

"We could identify parents who were very able and who we could get to grips with," says Mrs Haigh. "And we could also identify parents with basic skills needs of their own. So we began to get this nucleus of very loyal parents who were sold on homework and who were becoming interested in their own education as well as their children's."

Arbourthorne opened up a room for parents. It began offering workshops in parenting skills and helping children with homework. As the programme took off, the school also began to provide courses in poetry and stagecraft.

Staff and parents began to read Shakespeare together and some parents went on to produce their own show at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre.

Gradually parents gained the confidence to become more involved. "It's not unusual for children to be in the ICT suite having a lesson and a parent will slip in and take the nearest empty computer," said Mrs Haigh.

Parents are pushing the school's application for the national Healthy School standard. On the day of The TES visit parents were holding a workshop to discuss the bid. The school has created a parent and community governors' sub-committee. The school improvement plan includes a strategy to sustain and develop parental and community involvement. A parent even wrote the last governors' report.

The results are remarkable: while many schools struggle to overcome parental apathy at the annual report meeting, more than 40 parents attended last year's at Arbourthorne.

Anthea Twomey, the chair of governors, said:"When I first came, parents didn't come into school: if they did it was to complain or have a row - all the wrong reasons. And then this initiative began and they flooded in. They felt valued and important."

One benefit to the community has been the launch of a credit union for parents in a bid to beat local loan sharks. One of its founders, mother of two Tracy Laming, believes the school has become a focus for the community.

"I think it's very welcoming and open," she says. "I do feel at ease in the school - it's a relaxing atmosphere. Years ago you would just drop your kids off. You only went in if you were in trouble."

Name: Arbourthorne community primary, Sheffield

School type: 3-11 primary

Pupils eligible for free school meals: 46 per cent

Improved results: From 31 per cent of pupils achieving level 4 or above in English, 42 per cent in maths and 46 per cent in science in 1999, to 52, 52 and 80 per cent respectively in 2003

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