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Tamar team rise from the depths

Martin Whittaker on how a Cornish school stopped coasting and joined the cream of the crop

Name: Calstock community primary school.

Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 8 per cent.

Improved results: 100 per cent of pupils achieving level 4 and above in English, maths and science in 2003.

In recent years, staff at Calstock community primary have experienced something of a roller-coaster ride. From the low of being one of the first schools in Cornwall to go into special measures, they have swept to the high of gaining the best primary value-added score nationally.

Yet to look at this small village school today it is hard to believe it could ever have been classed as failing. Its staffroom has a close family atmosphere, while children seem well-behaved and eager to learn - an impression confirmed by the school's last inspection report. A year ago, the Office for Standards in Education declared it a very good school, with standards in English, maths, and science at the end of key stage 2 well above average.

Headteacher Jo Shelton and the school's board of governors were praised for very effective leadership. But Mrs Shelton is modest about her role, saying much progress had already been made when she arrived in September 2000. "I just had to stamp my own personality and educational philosophy on it. But a lot of the practical stuff was already in place," she says. "It had been a coasting school. There wasn't a lot of challenge and I think that's what was needed."

Calstock community primary has just 70 pupils and four teachers, including the head. Most of its pupils live in Calstock and 8 per cent are eligible for free school meals. Its KS2 test results have seen a huge improvement, though the head emphasises that the Year 6 cohort is small and fortunes can turn on the abilities of a few pupils.

In 1999, the percentage of pupils gaining level 4 and above were 70 per cent in English, 50 per cent in maths and 65 per cent in science. In 2003 the school scored 100 per cent across the board. In the results for the value-added pilot in 2002 it came top out of 495 primary schools with a score of 104.9. This year it is still in the top 5 per cent nationally.

The school's setting is idyllic. The village of Calstock looks out across a steep valley with a viaduct over the River Tamar and is a magnet for poets and painters. But in 1998 it also attracted the attention of the local media, when Calstock primary went into special measures. It was only the second school in the county to do so.

School secretary Kathy Thomas says Calstock has found it hard to shake off the tag. She recalls staff and parents facing reporters at the gates. "It was very sobering and I think almost everybody had time off sick."

But head Jo Shelton says although devastating to staff, the school did benefit from extra support from county hall and the additional cash that came with it.

"My policy was seeing what needed doing and doing it one bit at a time so people didn't feel they were overloaded. I tried to get the adults here to feel they were all part of a team, rather than being a head and then a senior manager, teacher and teaching assistant.

"My philosophy was if I'm going to move the school on, everybody's going to be coming with me. Otherwise it would be me and them and it wouldn't work.

Now I feel it is more cohesive. I feel we are more of a unit and we do things together."

One policy has been to have teaching assistants in every classroom to ease teacher workload. "It takes an awful lot of pressure off. They are well-trained, they are experienced and they do a lot over and above. I will spend money on that before I spend it on a lot of other things."

If somebody has a talent, the head will use it. Teaching assistants take games and run after-school clubs. Calstock also brings in local artists, puppeteers and poets to work with the children. A ceramic mural on the front of the building was made by children with the help of a local artist.

Jo Shelton also brought in more professional development for staff. "If there's something they want to do professionally I will endeavour as much as I can within the budget constraints to make sure they get the training."

The school has abandoned using worksheets, instead stressing writing throughout the curriculum.

"I don't believe worksheets teach a child very much. Frankly I don't think filling in a box is very educational. I think they should be hands-on and should be writing. Whatever it is, they write it."

Jo Shelton puts great emphasis on creative arts and sport. The school also offers as many trips as it can - including a visit to France with the area's other primary schools. "The emphasis is on a broad, balanced curriculum - I know everybody says that. But there is a recognition that if you just do an hour's focus on literacy and numeracy, I don't think you're fulfilling what you should be doing with the children."

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