Acing the basics elevates school to award-winner

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Torfaen primary merges technology and teaching to turn success rates around

Original paper headline: Acing the basics elevates hi-tech school to award-winner

To casual observers, the sight of Pontnewynydd Primary must conjure up visions of Victorian classrooms ruled over by strict masters with mortarboards, gowns and canes.

From a distance, the imposing Edwardian edifice, perched on a steep hill above the south Wales valleys town of Pontypool, looks as far removed from a 21st-century centre of learning as you can get.

But within its four walls, the school boasts an impressive range of equipment, including a TV studio, interactive whiteboards in every classroom and Wi-Fi throughout - all installed in the past two years as part of a plan to expand IT in schools by the local authority, Torfaen.

However, while this technological transformation is a source of pride for head Deborah Woodward, it is her focus on taking education back to basics that is making the biggest difference to her 145 pupils, and reaping big rewards. The school recently became the first in Wales to gain the Assembly government's new Basic Skills Quality Standard.

When Ms Woodward started at Pontnewynydd in 2007, she and her staff embarked on a major exercise in self-evaluation, comparing the school's attainment data locally and nationally.

"We wanted to see the bigger picture, to find out where we were and how we could move the school forward," she said.

But what they discovered was an unpleasant surprise: the benchmarking data revealed that Pontnewynydd was in the bottom 25 per cent of schools with similar free school meal entitlement (above 32 per cent of pupils).

Ms Woodward and her staff decided they had to focus on improving basic skills if they were to make a difference, and they knew that long-term effective teaching would be more successful than short-term initiatives.

"We had to prioritise, and we started on reading because that's the key to everything," she said. "There were a significant number of children who were underachieving."

So Pontnewynydd became one of six research schools within Torfaen to pilot the local authority's First Steps to Literacy programme, before moving on to mathematics. Teachers were given training in new pedagogy and set about tackling the problem with a range of innovative intervention strategies.

"It can't be done overnight, but even after 12 months we have seen the difference," Ms Woodward said. "With the children who have had reading intervention, we have seen a 95 per cent success rate in those achieving the target. There's been an improvement in the number who are reading at their chronological age.

"When you talk to children who have had intervention, they respond positively. They have the confidence to want to read, and they can even talk about the techniques they have used."

At the end of last term, the hard work of Pontnewynydd's staff was recognised with the new Basic Skills Quality Standard. Although it replaces the Basic Skills Agency's Quality Mark, which has made a significant contribution to the basic skills agenda in Wales over the past 12 years, it is a harder accreditation for schools to gain because of the rigorous criteria they have to meet.

Ms Woodward said: "We had a basic skills assessor come in to monitor lessons and we really had to prove that we were doing it - it wasn't just ticking a box.

"Getting the award was lovely. It's a nice pat on the back for my team because they have worked so hard."

But the hard work will not stop just because Pontnewynydd has won an award. The school now has ambitious plans to give pupils greater control over their own learning by introducing target-setting for individual pupils and involving them more in understanding their own next steps.

And while the focus on basic skills continues, pupils are also having their aspirations raised thanks to the brand new IT equipment.

"This was not just a number-crunching exercise," Ms Woodward said. "We always want to continue to raise standards. It's about giving the children real chances and not just getting a plaque on the wall."

Standard bearers

Following Pontnewynydd's lead, Ewloe Green Primary School in Flintshire has now become the first school in north Wales to gain the Basic Skills Quality Standard.

John Griffiths, deputy minister for skills, said gaining the award is an "outstanding achievement" for schools.

"We must not underestimate the importance of good basic skills in life," he said. "The ability to read, write and use numbers is the right of every child, young person and adult in Wales."

Ruth Dyas, the school's headteacher, said: "It's crucial to provide young people with a vibrant and stimulating curriculum to motivate them to learn. Basic skills, particularly literacy and numeracy, are essential for our children's future.

"I am delighted that we at Ewloe Green are the first school in north Wales to achieve the award, which is the result of a lot of hard work across the board."

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