Rhyl primary school came bottom of the primary league in the London borough of Camden last year. Just 34 per cent of children reached level 4 in mathematics, and only 43 per cent in English. Teachers and governors were "horrified", says chair of governors Jill Fraser. "We went through a terrible year." New headteacher Bryce Pederson - who joined the school last September - is unfazed. "I don't feel any pressure about being bottom of the league table. But I feel enormous pressure that we don't fail any child at this school."
The blame for poor results cannot be laid at the door of an incoming headteacher. But as the testing season looms again, is a new mood of autonomy taking hold in England? Heads and teachers have responded positively to the TES campaign for schools to set their own targets. Even before that, anecdotal evidence suggests the most common response to the letter sent by education minister Stephen Twigg to primary heads, exhorting them to work harder to meet test result targets, was to file it - in the bin.
One of the many complexities concealed in the Camden league tables is the polarisation of the borough, which is home to some of the richest people in the capital - from Hampstead in the north - and some of the poorest, in wards nearer the city centre. Rhyl primary in Kentish Town, which is dominated by high-rise flats, has a 22 per cent mobility rate. More than half the 500 children are entitled to free school meals, two out of three speak English as an additional language and almost one in three has special needs. "When you say you're at the bottom of the league," says Ms Fraser, "it doesn't reflect the work that goes on here."
When Rhyl governors needed to recruit a new head, they were apprehensive.
"It's a tremendous responsibility and incredibly hard work," says Ms Fraser. But Mr Pederson, a New Zealander who describes himself as "an outsider", left five years' headship in the outer-London borough of Waltham Forest to lead this inner-city school. "My idea of a good time is trying to achieve high standards," he says.
With more than 15 years of a 20-year teaching career spent in England, and considerable success at his former school, Barclay primary, Mr Pederson believes he has earned the right to do things his way. "I'm committed to raising standards," he says. "But you have to be clear why." His former school was also multicultural, although with fewer special needs and more parents in employment. There, results rose sharply in the five years he was headteacher.
"Results were just as low and we had similar issues." But Mr Pederson, who has an MBA in education management, sees his mission as broader than merely improving test results. He wants to create a learning culture. "We are all - staff, children, parents, governors - responsible for creating the way we want to be," he says.
He cites values as the most important element in school improvement.
"Flexibility, responsiveness, listening and supporting It's the values you put into a school community that help create the learning culture."
His focus is on a process of holistic school improvement. "How do we improve? How do we solve problems together? How do we enjoy change?" he continually asks himself and his staff. His first initiative at Rhyl was to replace the convoluted behaviour policy he inherited with a few simple rules and sanctions. Attendance and punctuality are the subject of major improvement drives, as are dingy play spaces and smelly lavatories.
Mr Pederson is forging his own way through government-prescribed measures for challenging schools. Around 80 adults are involved at Rhyl primary.
Teachers and learning assistants are joined by speech and language therapists, learning mentors, community, creche and social workers and more. All the adults, says Mr Pederson, have a part to play in children's learning. "Cleaners at my last school were very influential when it came to displays and local history."
He says the school bears too much evidence of ministerial school improvement procedures. "We've got every initiative going," he says. "The education action zone, integration, literacy and numeracy. Each is valid and worthy, but put them all together and you've got turmoil." He has made one permanent exclusion since he arrived. When he tracked the boy's day in school, he found the pupil was constantly on the move between the learning support unit, the reading volunteer, the peripatetic music teacher or the mentor. "When does that child create a meaningful relationship with the class teacher?"
From September, Rhyl will start integrating many initiatives into the timetable, he promises. "Literacy and numeracy should take place inside classrooms at the usual times. I don't have the right to say to a child, 'you're not getting PE or swimming this week because your spelling's not good enough'. The national curriculum is their entitlement, and I'm here to provide it."
At Rhyl, school improvement has little to do with league tables and everything to do with children meeting their potential. Mr Pederson has set targets "co-operatively" with Camden for this year's key stage 2 SATs - that 63 per cent of children should reach level 4 or above in English, and 68 per cent in maths. "I can't see the point of giving schools incremental targets to achieve within a given time," he says. "Heads are developing a set of values for themselves which says you can join the party, or you can have your own party."
Jackie Cox is head of Northdown school in Margate on the Isle of Thanet, Kent. The coastal primary school has a high mobility rate and has been recognised locally and nationally for the high quality of its work. Yet Northdown is perennially at or near the bottom of the league table for Kent. "We dread the results almost more than the tests themselves," says Ms Cox. "The press always run something awful. Last year the headline was 'one of the worst schools in England'. We were devastated."
Ironically, Ms Cox is in the middle of a spell away from her school, seconded to the local authority as part of an "excellence cluster" of people providing professional development for other heads. Her advice to those near the bottom of the league tables is sanguine. "Make sure you do pupil tracking. At the end of the figures, there's a little child you're talking about, and the context in which they are living and learning is far more important than a set of figures." She cites the fact that a school can add value in the form of Ofsted's 12 points of satisfactory progress and still not take the child to a level 4 test result at key stage 2.
Another Kent head, Lynn Lawrence, came to Eythorne Elvington community primary, Dover, in January last year. Outgoing head Alan Mercer was subsequently jailed for altering SATs papers taken two years ago in this former mining community. And results last year placed Eythorne almost at the bottom of the county table. Mrs Lawrence wrote to parents setting out the context; of 12 pupils who took the tests, eight had special needs. One had arrived in school that month and only seven had been at the school for the four years of key stage 2.
"Fortunately my parents look at the wider perspective," she says. "They value the choir, the football team and the art. But the effect on staff was demoralising. They feel their own performance is judged and no account is taken of the value added." But Mrs Lawrence is upbeat about life at Eythorne. "It's given me a starting point. We can only get better. I'm confident we have a positive future."
She says she would welcome key stage 1 assessments that allowed for the problem-solving approach in place at the foundation stage. "It would enable us to have the child-centred approach we need to raise standards, particularly for boys."
League tables, she says, are "not terribly helpful" for a school like hers.
"What is useful is a good tracking system for teachers, enabling them to share goals with the children and support them to achieve their potential."