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Smiling through the hard work

Kate Myers on how higher expectations and constant monitoring have raised results at a city primary.

Laycock primary is in the middle of inner-city Islington. Almost two-thirds of its pupils are eligible for free school meals, 55 have statements (45 of these are attached to the on-site unit for hearing-impaired children), 53 per cent have been identified as having special educational needs and 22 per cent speak English as a second language.

These statistics are acknowledged but not dwelt upon at Laycock. The recent OFSTED inspection report is peppered with adjectives such as "effective", "positive" and "high-quality". When you visit the school it is not difficult to see why. There are high expectations all round - between and from staff, pupils, parents and governors. There is also a lot of laughter.

Christina Miles is the indefatigable head who seems to finish almost every sentence with an infectious giggle. Hard work and good behaviour are considered synonymous with enjoyment. Indeed the behaviour code originally written and now annually revised by the pupils, talks about what has to be done to enjoy school. Good behaviour is noted by any adult in the Good as Gold book (so-named by the pupils) and three citations result in a letter home. Christina Miles, who started at the school 17 years ago as a probationer, has been head for six years. She believes that one of her most important jobs is to ensure that there is an atmosphere where learning can happen and that means for everyone.

Pupils are entitled to be equipped with the "basics" - where emotional blocks to learning exist they must be acknowledged but not used as an excuse. She understands that any teacher will want to help the weakest, but believes that it is important that able pupils are also challenged. Underlying the easy-going approach presented by her and John Bown, her deputy, is a tight, carefully-structured support system that ensures that teachers can get on with teaching. They know that everything is followed up. Procedures are not used unless they work. Staff time is valued and so are the staff.

Christina Miles and John Bown hold annual "audit of children's needs" conferences with individual teachers. Each child's progress is assessed and noted, helped by the Salford reading, national curriculum and diagnostic tests and a variety of other assessments. There have been steady improvements in the pupil scores in the London Reading Test. In 1990-91 the average was 89. 1 compared with the borough average of 100.7. By 1993-4 the Laycock average had risen steadily to 102.7, whereas the Islington average had slipped to 98. 7. Such improvements take no account of any changes there may have been in the intake of the school, but Christina Miles believes the rise is closely linked to higher expectations.

Twice a year teachers are covered to enable them to have individual conferences with parents. They use the Primary Language Record as a basis for these detailed discussions. According to Lynn Woods, a parent governor at Laycock, the teachers never undermine what parents say. They are encouraged to be involved as much as they can be but not made to feel bad if active involvement is difficult for them.

A termly diary includes forthcoming events and regular letters from class teachers tell them about the curriculum. Parents are also encouraged to be involved through the flourishing PACT scheme.

Integration works both ways at Laycock. Children from the unit for hearing-impaired pupils are integrated as appropriate for their needs into the mainstream school. In the same way, careful planning between teachers allows children from the mainstream to be integrated into the unit as co-learners, not helpers. Mainstream children who need withdrawal support are given this by their own class teacher who is covered by a support teacher. A primary helper is attached to each class (though given the current funding problems the head is not sure how long this situation can be retained).

Although there is an emphasis on the basics, the education of the whole child is not neglected. The day I visited the school, one class was working with a local potter. Two days before, the City of London Symphonia had performed Peter Grimes with Year 3. The children are now planning their trip to the Barbican. Another regular event is the annual summer visit to Frinton-on-Sea. The school hires a train and extended families join in what is seen as an important part of belonging to Laycock.

The children I spoke to certainly felt it was their school. They told me about how they had been involved in redesigning the entrance and were currently building and planting a new garden in the playground. Their views are regularly canvassed. Their suggestion to me was that the empty factory next door should be turned into Laycock secondary school and then there should be plans for a Laycock university. Under the same management of course.

Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, (ISEIC) Institute of Education, University of London, and co-ordinates its School Improvement Network.

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