Little goes a long way

Stephanie Northen

A small village primary that was on the verge of closure six years ago is now a rejuvenated beacon school. Stephanie Northen talks to the head who achieved a minor miracle - without ditching a single member of staff

The east wind is rehearsing its winter assault on Norfolk. It blows across empty fields, through blackthorn hedges and around a little Victorian school lost down a low country lane. Straight from the Arctic, it brings tears to the eyes of anyone lingering in the playground.

Tears are not unusual at Colby primary, as Y've Reynolds discovered when she arrived in 1996. It was not an easy summer for the novice headteacher from the West Midlands. No sooner had she got the Norfolk job than the school was put in special measures for failures that "went right across the board". When Ms Reynolds met the school's four teachers, they were shocked and depressed. Some cried.

The Ofsted report made dismal reading: the children were naughty, rude and insensitive. A third of lessons were unsatisfactory, parts of the national curriculum were not taught, standards in English were low, there was not enough planning, and progress was limited. Management was weak, with governors and head lacking vision and leadership. Pupil numbers fell to 77 and there was talk of closure.

Six years on, there will be tears at Colby again. This Christmas, the school says good-bye to Y've Reynolds, who is leaving to become head of an inner-London primary. Staff, children and parents will find the parting hard, for under her leadership Colby rose from the abyss. Its achievements since 1996 are remarkable. Now one of England's 1,000 beacon schools, it sets the pace for others in many areas where it once struggled. Teachers visit to learn about its innovative work on the curriculum, behaviour management, thinking skills, leadership and literacy. The place is filled with art, music, awards and rosettes. It is an eco-school with an organic garden, a new field studies centre, a wind-powered chicken coop and an aviary of prize-winning birds. It is also, of course, oversubscribed with 144 pupils now on roll.

For Ms Reynolds, the "icing on the cake" is that the transformation took place with those shocked and depressed staff she met on her first day. She says she never considered getting rid of anyone, unlike many new heads of schools in special measures. "If someone had not been able to work with me, I would have seen that as my failure, not theirs. I would have failed as a manager if I had not been able to carry them and develop them as people. I know someone who got rid of nine out of 12 staff, but it is not in my personality to do that."

The teachers were demoralised. Judy Tree, about to take over as acting head while the school advertises for a new head, says: "We had lost all confidence in our ability. Traumatic wasn't the word. Sometimes you just didn't want to get up in the morning."

Y've Reynolds, a self-proclaimed positive person who doesn't see problems, was eager to help. Her management philosophy was simple and has been adopted by all the staff. "We aim to treat others how we wish to be treated. We have no other rules - we just live that one."

She promised the staff progress by the end of the first term, and told an education authority officer that the school would be turned round in 18 months, half the time he had suggested. It was not easy. On top of dealing with Ofsted, there were classrooms to be built, some "strange" parents to be sorted out, she got shingles, and her chair of governors changed three times in that first year.

First came action plans: one drawn up by staff, the other by pupils. The children spent the first day of term thinking about what was wrong with their behaviour and how to put it right. Each class presented its ideas, which were combined into one plan, signed by everyone. It had an immediate effect, helped by the "positive behaviour" strategy Ms Reynolds had brought with her from Wolverhampton.

She had also brought plans for teaching the national curriculum, an issue that had never been properly addressed at Colby, where the headteacher had always had a heavy teaching burden. "I don't believe in reinventing the wheel and we didn't have time," she says. The plans were adapted for the tiny primary's two-year classes and put into action. "I did not have, at this point, any resistance from the staff. It was a case of, 'Yes, please, just show us the way'. I strived to prove that these were the right things for us to do and I never asked them to do something I hadn't done myself."

Y've Reynolds did meet resistance when she wanted her four teachers to plan their lessons every week. "I took my big planning sheet into the staff meeting and they looked at it, horrified. I told them to indulge me, just to try it and see how they got on."

A week later, they hadn't got on at all well. In fact, they said, they couldn't possibly do it. Ms Reynolds didn't give up. She asked a computer expert to draw up some other forms for the teachers to try. "After another week they came back and said, 'OK, we'll use your one, please'."

By that first Christmas, she had moved the teachers on from lesson planning to curriculum leadership. "I wanted to empower them. Each had their own area, budget and title. Each had a personal portfolio."

Now Colby has a reputation for innovative curriculum development, with thinking skills and philosophy on the timetable for all classes. Self-esteem and confidence are at the heart of all Y've Reynolds does. Profoundly influenced by her time as a child at a hated junior school, she does not want any youngster to suffer as she did. If pupils and teachers feel good about themselves, standards will rise, she says. "People taste success and they know just how good it feels." A trained counsellor, she gives people cakes and flowers - and choice and a voice.

Her staff have a head committed to their professional development, and she applies the same thinking to children. Give them responsibility and respect and they will repay you. She set up a system of "playground angels" - 11-year-olds elected by the children to keep harmony at break times. Then she heard about school councils, where children elect classmates to represent their views and run projects. She booked herself a place at a conference on a Tuesday and introduced councils into the school on the Friday. Now Colby's pupils star on a BBC Learning Zone video and have held a council meeting in the House of Commons with the former education secretary Estelle Morris in attendance.

Y've Reynolds is proud to leave Colby in the care of one of the original teachers from the "little failing school". Judy Tree says: "Six years ago, I would have said no way to such responsibility. But Y've gives you courage and raises your self-esteem. She says, 'Of course you can do it'."

Reynolds' way

* Treat others as you wish to be treated

* Never ask staff to do something you have not done yourself

* Ensure they have the right support and opportunities to develop

* If something isn't working, stop doing it

* Everything must work to enhance the lives of pupils and teachers

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Stephanie Northen

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