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Tale of triumph after tragedy

Once in despair, an inner-city primary has been brought back from the brink. Andrew Mourant reports.

The purposeful hush during lessons at Hill Mead primary, serving an estate in Brixton, south London, has not been won easily. It tells a story of priorities. In one of the capital's toughest corners, the head wants to encourage high achievement. Yet without classroom order, good intentions are futile.

When Richard West took the headship permanently last year, Hill Mead was still in the backwash of a tragedy. In July 2001, an 11-year-old girl, Bunmi Shagaya, drowned in a lake on a school trip to France. It was the first time Hill Mead had taken pupils abroad. The aftermath was traumatic for children and teachers, and a French magistrate was appointed to investigate whether there was a case to answer. The local authority still has a lawyer on the case in France.

Claire Nuttall, deputy head, said: "When I arrived, the school was getting very good Sats results and seemed to be going places. But what happened seemed to knock everyone for six."

There were staff upheavals, supply teachers, temporary staff and absenteeism. Mrs Nuttall, in her first deputy headship but effectively in charge, found herself in a maelstrom - "a lot to do and not having the tools to do it". But she laid the foundations for recovery: systems and policies, a school council, a parents' council.

Mr West, who had been acting head at a neighbouring Fresh Start primary, and had done consultancy work in Lambeth, was sent to Hill Mead. The school got into his blood, and when the job was advertised in May 2004 he could not resist it.

"I felt I was the right person in the right place at the right time," he said. The trauma had subsided but much remained in disarray. There was a budget deficit, but above all he wanted to drive up standards. This meant recruiting committed, experienced staff and cutting supply teachers and assistants.

Hill Mead is one of a few primaries with three full-time teachers per two-class year-group, one a team leader. Assistant numbers have fallen from 22 to 12.

"Team leaders can model best practice and ensure planning assessment is done," Mr West said. "They help pinpoint under-achieving pupils and make sure that's tackled." Sometimes these may be pupils for whom English is a second language.

In a Y5 English class, a small group receives special attention from team leader Sonnie Overy, covering the same ground from another angle - "using resources more suitable to their needs".

The presence of full-time staff has helped restore order. Getting to grips with this was Mr West's first priority. "We began with five simple rules, and now we have a code of conduct. It's all about expectations - and when you've got them, children are happier."

There are expectations of parents too - no excuses for children not having the right uniform. Alex Cruse, a Y5 teacher in her first post, has every parent's home number logged in her mobile phone and, should standards slip, "I'll ring and speak to them there and then," she said.

Greater parental involvement through better communications, social events and achievement evenings has extended to the classroom. A parent can be invited in to help manage their child.

Pursuing parents who were themselves at odds with school requires a robust spirit. "We're rigorous in selection and picky at interview," Mrs Nuttall said. "We ask candidates how they'd get a class from the top of the building down a winding staircase in an orderly fashion and deliver them outside, bags packed, and all in 10 minutes."

Hill Mead's adverts in The TES said: "Brixton kids can equal the achievement of children anywhere." It's a bold assertion - 40 per cent of pupils have English as a second language, and 17 per cent are placed there temporarily before being re-housed elsewhere.

Mr West said: "Some may have experienced war, gang violence or drug culture.

"Pre-school skills are often low - most pupils do not know their colours, are unfamiliar with books and cannot speak in complete sentences."

Amid this melting pot he has sought to assert "old-fashioned" values. One is a strict focus on writing and work presentation. A striving for neatness is evident in the books of even Y3 strugglers. Another is an achievement ladder on the wall displaying every child's rate of progress.

Less old-fashioned is the use of art for broader development. Claudia Fleary-Tayabali, Y6 team leader, specialises in this. "Using the arts draws children into being active learners," she said.

She uses music to instil numeracy - reciting tables and doing sums in time to a bass line rhythm. "It works. When they go home, they chant things to their brothers and sisters," she said.

Governor Natalie Barrett feels management is helped by her team and the head listening and responding to each other.

"Richard is good at reaching into the community," she said. "But we've learnt from mistakes, such as saying in newsletters that Ofsted required us to invite parents to the governors' presentation. Put like that, not as many as we wanted turned up."

No one at Hill Mead presumes the job is done. "We're on a journey," Mr West said.

Results show a momentum in the right direction, From May 2004 to May 2005, numbers achieving appropriate levels for their age in reading, writing and maths almost doubled among those who left in the summer, a pattern repeated in the two year-groups below. Pupils for whom English is a second language do at least as well as their peers.

It is a world Mr West would never have encountered as a boy growing up in rural Devon.

"But I always decided I'd come to London," he said. "If you like the mix of community, there's nothing more rewarding."

Name: Hill Mead

School type: Primary

437 pupils eligible for free school meals; 68% from African and Caribbean background; 30% on special needs register.

Results: Numbers reaching expected levels (2b+) in KS1 Sats: 2003 2005

Maths 39% 89%

Reading 39% 91%

Writing 27% 85%

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