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Lifting the Vale

In just two years, Owler Brook has been transformed from a school with serious weakness to a beacon one. Now it's training non-teaching staff to degree-level in a ground-breaking deal with a university, writes David Newnham

There is nothing especially shocking about the close-mesh fence surrounding Owler Brook nursery and infant school. To those familiar with the poorest parts of Britain, such details are commonplace. It's true that the caretaker has to clear a litter of syringes from inside the fence at the start of every day. But the catchment area - the name Fir Vale seems a cruel misnomer - is hardly unique in being plagued with poverty, crime, drugs and disaffection.

Before we dismiss Owler Brook as just another inner-city school doing a fantastic job under challenging circumstances, it's worth picking out a few statistics that catch even the most world-weary eye.

Around 90 per cent of pupils have a first language other than English and 73 per cent are only in the early stages of acquiring English. A visitor might hear children speaking Urdu, Arabic, Polish, Swedish, Somali, Dutch, Swahili, Gujerati, Hindi or Pushto. But the linguistic mix could change at any time, and without warning.

Fir Vale is a highly transient community. In the year 20012002, there was a turnover of 77 pupils out of 322 at the school, and on present trends, this year's turnover will be faster still. Many pupils come from families who are in seemingly perpetual flight, and it's not unusual for children to disappear overnight, or to come and go several times throughout their school lives.

But if these statistics indicate the nature of the challenge facing Owler Brook, then another statistic suggests that the challenge is being met with surprising success. Last term alone, the school welcomed 173 visitors, and most had come to gather ideas or to see for themselves how much could be achieved against such odds.

Not only do professionals come for inspiration, but almost 40 now attend lectures at the school as part of their early years training, or to make use of its rich cultural mix to develop their own bilingual teaching skills. Owler Brook has even become an approved outreach centre for Derby University after forging successful links with the university's early years foundation degree course.

In just two years - between 1999 when it was judged to have "serious weakness" and 2001, when it was awarded beacon status - Owler Brook has been transformed. To pass through those steel gates today is to enter a haven of calm. In the days after the September 11 bombings, the school provided a refuge from community tensions for children and parents alike. For here, it seems, multiculturalism has become more than just a pious hope.

Among the countless factors that must contribute to any such transformation, two stand out. First was the decision, after the disastrous 1999 Ofsted report and the subsequent removal of the head, to call in an outsider. Then came the decision to designate Owler Brook a fresh- start school, rebuilding it on a new site under Sheffield's first private finance initiative (PFI).

Sue Graville was working as deputy head at a primary in the city when she was invited to spend six weeks at the school. She had completed a management training degree course, and the LEA wanted her to apply the knowledge and skills she had acquired. After her first meeting with the staff, she went home and cried.

"I'll never forget it," she says. "It was awful. They were so deskilled and felt so demotivated and low. They weren't used to being listened to. So when I asked if anybody had any questions, there was a total wall of silence." It was the same with the parents, many of whom regarded her as "just another white woman brought into the school". Under the previous regime, they had never been allowed through the gates except once a year for parents' evening.

To involve staff in setting things right, she appointed a senior management team and began making professional development a priority. And she told parents: "We're opening the doors from half past eight - come in and spend 20 minutes preparing activities for your children."

Six weeks later, Graville was asked to stay on for a further six months while the authority advertised for a new head. Although she had no intention of applying for the post, the fact that she was now leading the school towards rebirth made her appointment almost inevitable.

In January 2001, the new single-storey building was ready for occupation. But long before the physical move from its Victorian premises on the Fir Vale site, the school had changed beyond recognition. And the process of change continues, driven by Sue Graville's passion for innovation.

"I have all my best ideas when I'm lying on a beach somewhere," she says. "In fact my staff have threatened to ban me from going on holiday."

Children from nursery age upwards are now involved in setting their own targets at the start of each term. Key stage 1 pupils are taught literacy and numeracy in target-focused groups, moving to higher groups as they progress. And at lunchtime, a team of playleaders and trained dining room staff actively help stressed and troubled children through the sometimes fraught activities of eating and unwinding.

The school now has a thriving lifelong learning community - even Muslim fathers, traditionally sensitive on such matters, have been persuaded to attend classes and discuss their role in the family.

And in the classroom, the huge parental involvement has already reaped tangible rewards.

With so many language differences, Owler Brook's demand for bilingual staff easily exceeds supply. One of Graville's first "ideas" was to give pupils'

mothers formal training as classroom assistants. And it was the school's extraordinary need for bilingual resources that was to propel the training project on to a whole new level.

"You can't get bilingual or bicultural story sacks," says Graville. "So I had the idea of linking with a university and getting teacher training students to put sacks together as part of their coursework with us.

"At the same time, five of my bilingual support workers who I'd trained up said that they wanted to do more. So I contacted somebody at Derby University who was putting together an early years foundation degree course. She visited and said 'I think we can do something about this.' " Such was the interest from other schools that 37 students now attend lectures at Owler Brook since it became an approved outreach centre for the university. What's more, the course includes a new language and literacy research module which just happens to involve the making and reviewing of bilingual story sacks.

This ability to turn diversity to its advantage is clearly a key to Owler Brook's success. And it is echoed in one of Graville's many anecdotes from her first days at the school.

"It was one of the first things that made me realise how wonderful this school was," she says. "A child said she was being bullied, and so the parent came in to see me. And as we sat in my office, the child tried to describe the person who was bullying her. He was about this high, he was a boy, and he had curly hair. He also had a green jumper and black trousers - not surprisingly, since that was the school uniform.

"After about 20 minutes of this, we eventually walked around with her until she could point him out. And it turned out that he was the only black Afro-Caribbean child we had at that time, but it just hadn't dawned on her to say so. And I thought: that is absolutely superb."

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