Brief encounter

9th January 2004 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Two days in the life of a comprehensive school Photographs by Brian Harris

It's a brave school these days that allows a photographer freedom of access to its classrooms and corridors. But that's what Samuel Ward school in Haverhill, Suffolk, granted our photographer Brian Harris. For two days he was allowed to shoot where and what he wanted, to record everyday life in what might be called a bog-standard school - last year Samuel Ward's GCSE passes were bang in line with the national average.

On these pages we present his photo-diary which shows school life as it really is: lively, bustling, sometimes challenging but a place where people go about their business with an air of self-confidence and purpose.

It was that positive attitude that Brian Harris remarked on when he presented us with his portfolio. "I was impressed by the respect shown by the pupils towards the teaching staff and vice versa. The headteacher told me he trusted me to take my camera where I wanted - and that shows a man who is confident in the school he runs."

Howard Lay, the head, thinks schools should be presented in the raw: not in the rose-coloured tints of a Whitehall brochure but as animated, sometimes strident, stimulating places to work. Any publicity should stress to prospective teachers, at the same time, that there's nothing to be frightened of.

As you probe beneath the surface, you find that Samuel Ward, like any school, is not bog-standard: it has its own style, its success stories (probably some failures too) and idiosyncracies. But it is more successful than a mere reliance on exam statistics can reveal.

Samuel Ward operates in 1980s buildings in Haverhill, a post-war London overspill town of 22,000 that grew by 11 per cent during the 1990s like many other towns in Suffolk. It is not without its social problems. The school caters for 800 pupils from Years 9 to 12.

Howard Lay is pleased with the compliments about his school's ethos. "We have a very clear set of values here that put a strong emphasis on learning. We've take a very pragmatic stance to avoid confrontation: uniform is not a big issue because it detracts from learning.

"We offer our pupils detailed diagnosis of their academic and social needs, give them individual learning plans and all our pupils in Years 10 and 11 do some vocational work. A lot of our high-flying pupils spend a day a week at our local college: they need to apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical way."

This emphasis on the individual is paying dividends because this year the number of pupils passing five top-grade GCSE was 54 per cent, up 3 percentage, points on last year. Mr Lay is hoping to hit 60 per cent soon.

His optimism is backed by the value-added score the school reached in the first published key stage 3 results: at 101.5, it is significantly above national and county averages.

"The ultimate goal is completely independent learning programmes for all pupils," says Mr Lay. "We need to break free from the Victorian model that shoehorns them into classrooms."

Samuel Ward is obviously a place where new and young staff can prosper.

Take 26-year-old Louise Welsh, the deputy head of maths. Two and a half years ago, she was working as a quantity surveyor after gaining a degree in maths and law. She came to Samuel Ward as a trainee on the graduate teacher programme, then spent last year gaining qualified teacher status. So impressive was her work - Brian Harris reported that her name kept cropping up among staff - that she was immediately promoted.

"I'm a local so am aware Haverhill has a bad name but this school is lovely: the pupils are very considerate and the staff are so supportive. If I have a problem I'm never afraid to ask because I know someone will help and they won't be at all judgmental.

"It can be difficult for a woman because we're not a huge presence, but whenever I feel a confrontation developing, I am always incredibly polite, saying please and thank you, and I find it works. I never make demands and you'd be amazed how effective that is."

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