A tonic for the troupe

28th December 2001 at 00:00
It's been a very good year for Medlock primary. Its highly individual staff team, including a former circus performer and a head whose belief in the power of creative development is all-pervasive, has produced results far beyond what might have been expected. Elaine Williams reports.

As the roll of steel pans resonates around Brunswick parish church in inner-city Manchester and the Medlock primary after-school dance club moves expressively through its "peace" choreography, staff and pupils are in a truly celebratory mood. A peace and unity concert at Christmas is highly appropriate for this multi-ethnic school, not only as a reflection on world events, but as a mark of its achievements throughout the year as a community that places creative, positive relationships at the heart of everything it does. Indeed, the concert is only an extended version of what regularly goes on in daily assembly, the steel band creating an upbeat tempo for the start of each morning. Upbeat is how this school likes to be - seeing only positives where others might see negatives.

Medlock is close to Manchester's university quarter, taking in children from a transient overseas postgraduate student population. It is also bang in the middle of a local authority housing estate where drug-related crime is rife, and shootings, crack houses and prostitution keep local police busy. Forty-seven per cent of its 364 pupils are eligible for free school meals; 45 per cent arrive after the age of five or leave before age 11 (over the past year 64 children have left; 103 arrived); children come from 28 countries, speaking 21 languages between them, and with 48 per cent speaking English as a second language. It is housed on a split site, the juniors in a dilapidated Victorian building lifted only by bright emulsion in classrooms, the infants in a rotting Sixties block over the road, incontinent on rainy days and long past its sell-by date.

The state of the buildings is an irritation rather than an obstacle, although fingers are being crossed for the success of a one-site rebuild bid. And the diversity of the school's population is regarded as a big plus. Joan Hart, the school's senior learning mentor, reflects the attitude of the entire staff when she says: "We're lucky to have such a rich mix. These are just great kids."

Some of these "great kids" might be regarded as disaffected and troublesome by other schools. Indeed, Medlock has managed to re-integrate children excluded from other schools, using an innovative emotional and behaviour management programme to convert trouble into creativity and enthusiasm.

Stuart Herrington, who took up Medlock's headship a year ago, looks back with pleasure over 12 months in which his attempt to consolidate a staff community of positive, lateral thinkers has been affirmed and praised. Ofsted, which inspected the school last April, noted that "excellent relationships are a key characteristic of the school"; that virtually all pupils are "exceptionally enthusiastic learners"; that "racial and social harmony exists throughout the school"; and that the school affords "outstanding provision for pupils' personal development", and is "outstandingly successful in meeting all its stated aims".

Mr Herrington, 33, has been at Medlock since arriving as a newly qualified teacher nine years ago. A boyish enthusiast, he is totally committed to creating the best from its social and cultural diversity by developing staff willing to "think outside the box", an over-used phrase that nevertheless has a reality at Medlock. For example, a whole-staff training day on the first day back after half-term was spent in the woods at Styal Country Park nature reserve, near Wilmslow, making sculptures from materials scavenged from the woods to illustrate poetry by Robert Frost. "Other heads might think that seems mad," says Mr Herrington, "but I want staff to think of themselves as individuals who can come up with creative solutions."

When three staff left for promotions at the end of last year, a touch of creative budgeting enabled five to be taken on in September, the extra hands ending the school's reliance on supply for absences, and ensuring stability for pupils. It also meant that a system of targeted teaching could be developed further for groups or individual pupils.

All of these measures are designed to raise attainment. Key stage 2 SATs results this year were the best ever - 62 per cent reaching level 4 in English; 73 per cent in maths; 90 per cent in science; well above the average for similar schools. Some of this success is down to Carol Powell, Medlock's deputy head, who spent the year teaching English, maths and science to a group of eight "very disaffected" Year 6 pupils, moving most of them up a level, and two of them from level 2 to 4. By 2003, Mr Herrington is hoping for 76 per cent level 4 in English and maths and 42 per cent level 5 by running target groups for more able pupils.

This year, Medlock has developed its partnership with the independent Manchester high school, so that 22 Year 6 pupils work one-to-one every Tuesday after school with sixth-formers in the high school's science labs. Jon Board, a physics graduate in his second year of teaching at Medlock, works with a science group towards level 6. Mr Board, who performed circus acts between graduating and entering teaching, is typical of the individualistic, multi-skilled staff Medlock is managing to attract. He says: "I knew as soon as I stepped inside the door that this was where I wanted to be. Here we help children to be more self-reflective, and to understand how they learn."

Individual pupils are targeted with imaginative programmes. Jamil, eight, was disruptive and never able to settle to anything except when he was drawing or painting. Ever watchful for potential, staff concluded that he possessed exceptional visual awareness, so they created an individual programme for him that included visual challenges within the normal curriculum. In a recent dance lesson, he was asked to make a quick sketch of how pupils should be positioned in a dance they had composed. Jamil also spends a good deal of time with Dave Hulston, an artist and musician who works at Medlock two days a week as an arts development officer, advising staff, creating schemes of work and working with individual pupils.

An exhibition space has been set up in a reception area where large, powerfully expressive paintings on themes such as the "horrors of war" and "identity" - all linked to curriculum topics - are displayed. The paintings, worked on over weeks, are often linked to poetry and writing. It is here that children such as Jamil come to work with Mr Hulston, and where he gives them some freedom to take the initiative. For example, Jamil became interested in a pile of stones Mr Hulston had brought into school, and made stepping stones with them. This turned into a discussion about journeys and a painting by Jamil on life as a journey - a darkly layered self-portrait super-imposed with stones, shells and keys, and text with statements such as "I wish to fly"; "Sometimes we hurt on the outside, inside we have our happy memories".

Staff considered the key to engaging Jamil in learning was allowing him plenty of space for self-discovery and expression, working things out at a deep-seated level. An emphasis on developing children emotionally, says Mr Herrington, is central to the school's mission. Mr Hulston started working at Medlock on a voluntary basis when he lived on the local Ardwick estate and his two daughters attended the school. He was then taken on half-time as a support worker for a special needs child. When this task came to an end, he was retained to develop the visual arts. Developing a role for Mr Hulston and managing to keep him on by contracting out his services to other schools is typical of Medlock's "outside-the-box" thinking in meeting its pupils needs. Mr Hulston now works half of his week for Manchester Arts Education Festival, helping to devise programmes for 47 other schools, and creating partnerships between schools and the nearby Whitworth Gallery.

Medlock has also developed an emotional literacy programme, based on the work of emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman. Carol Powell, who has steered the programme, believes children's behaviour and learning will improve only if they know "how to handle their feelings". Medlock's learning mentors - Joan Hart, formerly a special needs support assistant at the school, and Stuart Halliwell, a graduate in health and psychology - were appointed through Excellence in Cities funding to drive the programme forwards. They take pupils in targeted small groups or one-to-one every day, working through poems and texts that express emotions such as anger or loneliness, or using circle time to allow pupils to talk through issues that are "barriers to learning".

Every Friday, the mentors hold a lunch party on a "feeling of the week" theme, laying out a table with napkins and special glasses for children who have shown particular kindness, for example, or respect for others. Mr Halliwell says: "If we can help children grow emotionally and be in touch with themselves, we are more likely to create successful adults."

To improve attendance and punctuality, Mr Herrington has extended the mentors' role to running a breakfast club, standing at the door each morning to welcome parents and pupils into school, checking registers for absentees and following up with home visits.

Peer mentoring has also been established this year. For example, Parisce and Chelsea, both 10, have been charged with the task of teaching six-year-old Abdoulai how to play. "When he was out in the playground he just got into fighting," says Parisce, "so we've taught him games like skipping." Chelsea says: " Bad behaviour gets sorted out easily at this school. If you do something wrong, teachers give you a chance. It's brilliant."

* A good year

January Stuart Herrington appointed head, Carol Powell deputy head.

February Two learning mentors take up posts.

March Year 6 children perform their interpretation of Caliban's story at the Forum Theatre as part of the Manchester Arts Education Festival.

April Outstanding Ofsted inspection.

June Arts development officer role developed to involve more art across the curriculum.

September Five new staff join school; more target teaching groups created across school.

October Staff training in Styal Country Park.

November Children invited to City Art Gallery to record their responses to art for the gallery's audio guides.

December Week's residential to Gyhll Head for 30 Year 5 and 6 children; Artsmark application (Arts Council awards for schools) completed by Dave Hulston - going for gold; peace and unity concert.

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