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Playing the numbers game

Empty desks present a familiar challenge for a Devon primary threatened with closure in the Eighties. Now a thriving school, it is set fair to weather the storm, Martin Whittaker reports

Name Plymtree primary, Plymtree, Devon

School type Voluntary-controlled infant and junior school

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

2 per cent

Improved results From 85 per cent across the board achieving level 4 and above in 2002 to 100 per cent in science and 88 per cent in maths, 82 per cent in English

Unlike many rural communities, Plymtree has managed to keep its amenities.

There is a village shop and post office, a pub and a community hall. But two decades ago the Devon village almost lost its primary school when pupil numbers fell to just 14.

Former headteacher Chris Thornhill recalls arriving in April 1983 to find a village school from another era - a small Victorian schoolhouse with an ethos to match.

"It was run by two sisters, who were really hard-working and loved the children. One was head and one was the teacher, and they had hearts of gold - they even paid the school bills personally. But they didn't embrace the community. They kept it at bay.

"There was nothing there when I arrived as head. I used to have to come in and make bookshelves. And the record keeping was a sheet of foolscap."

The school roll had fallen because of a fall in numbers of primary-age children in Plymtree. Local parents were choosing to send their children elsewhere.

Two decades on, this small village school is thriving. More than half of its pupils come from outside the community and some parents choose it instead of their local primaries in nearby towns like Cullompton and Honiton.

Plymtree primary is a voluntary-controlled infant and junior school with 110 pupils on roll. Only 2 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

In recent years its key stage 2 national test results have been in the top 5 per cent nationally. This year 100 per cent achieved level 4 and above in science, 88 per cent in maths and 82 per cent in English.

The Office for Standards in Education declared it an effective school where pupils do well academically and their personal development is also very good.

How did Mr Thornhill reverse falling rolls? "I took the view that what we needed to do was involve the community and they would then be the ambassadors for the school.

"There was a lot of hard work with the village and its people for the first five years. Because my philosophy was that teachers are not the oracles of education - they are the co-ordinators.

"And there are people in the community who are far better at computers, or sport, and they have time. You can bring them into the school and you then enlarge your staffing, you enlarge your influence and you really get the community spirit."

He brought into the school professional music tuition, football and netball coaching, and artists - all from his own local contacts. Mr Thornhill also involved parents in homework clubs and ran a Saturday morning football club and a Sunday swimming club.

When the school needed more accommodation, the education authority offered some disused classrooms from another school for pound;600. He roped in the Royal Marines to dismantle, relocate and rebuild them.

He took a decision not to actively promote the school but to rely on word-of-mouth. "I didn't want anyone saying 'you said you would'. That can be a great problem - when you set yourself up, you can be shot down."

It worked. Parents from more than 10 miles away began sending children there and in the Nineties it was close to capacity.

"It takes about five years to turn a school around, and after 1988-89 it just exploded because the more people are there, the more word gets around."

Chris Thornhill took early retirement six years ago because of ill health.

His successor Pat Fay, who had taught at the school for 11 years, says his dynamic leadership was the thing which saved the school from closure in the Eighties.

"I think when he came along he felt very much as I do, that successful education can only take place if there's a real relationship between home and school."

Although held back by limited accommodation - until two years ago, the children were still using outside toilets - the school has managed to expand and make the most of what it has.

Bare tarmac in front of the school has become a play area, and a spare classroom looking out over green pasture has been turned into an information communications technology suite.

One of Plymtree primary's strengths is in music. Pupils can have individual singing lessons or join one of three choirs, and can learn guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet or violin. French is taught right through from reception to Year 6.

Amid fears of falling rolls in the future, Pat Fay believes that, based on numbers of application forms, pupil numbers will see a slight increase next year.

But can a small village school like Plymtree survive a longer-term drop in the birth rate? "I think it would," says Pat Fay.

"There are parents who've got children here who like the fact that parents are involved, that we're very open, that we make sure that it is a partnership between parents and school.

"Inevitably there will be a small drop. But I would hope that as has happened in the past, that word-of-mouth and our reputation would be enough to carry us through."

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