Building a space for the whole village

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
A 'grey-haired revolutionary' leads a truly inclusive community of parents, students and staff. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Birley Spa primary school, Sheffield

School type: 3-11 community school

Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 25 per cent

Results: In 1996, 44 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 33 per cent in maths and 31 per cent in science. Last year the results were 92 per cent in English, 94 per cent in maths and 98 per cent in science

Geoff Mawson has been head of the same school for 23 years - long enough to be educating his second generation of pupils. Now he sees those he taught in the Eighties collecting their own children at the school gate.

Birley Spa primary has grown up, too. Back in 1982, there were two separate infants and junior schools housed in 1950s timber-framed buildings that were prone to vandalism, and parents were vociferously against a proposed amalgamation. Today infants, juniors and a nursery are under one roof in a spacious, modern school, purpose-built to support children's learning and serve the community.

And the parents? Many of them are in the classrooms, too. On any given day there are up to 80 parents in the school, working in learning support, childcare, volunteering or attending as adult learners. They also sit alongside staff and pupils on working groups set up to tackle specific school issues that they themselves may have raised.

Thanks to the way the school interacts with its community, the new inspection regime with its emphasis on self-evaluation holds no horrors for Birley Spa primary, says Dr Mawson.

Indeed, so successful has its approach been that the school features as a case study in a new guide to self-evaluation published by the National College for School Leadership.

"The whole community needs to share in the education of its children and the children need to be willing partners, too," Dr Mawson observes.

"It does, as the African proverb says, require a whole village to educate a child. Schools are at the heart of the community. Parents need to be fully involved and seen as part of the solutions, not part of the problems."

Birley Spa is a large community primary at the heart of a council estate in Hackenthorpe, Sheffield. There are few other community facilities here - shops are boarded up and there's no GP surgery.

In its last inspection in November 2001, Ofsted described the school as outstanding and said that it "profoundly enriches the lives of its pupils".

Birley Spa has 540 pupils including those in its nursery. Around a fifth have special educational needs and a quarter have free school meals. Yet despite serving a working-class area where few go into higher education, key stage 2 Sats results have steadily improved over the last decade.

There is a definite buzz to Birley Spa primary. As he walks around its light, airy classrooms, Geoff Mawson natters to Year 6 pupils painting home-made kites and measuring the string down the school's long corridors.

Dr Mawson happily describes himself as one of the "grey-haired revolutionaries" - maverick heads willing to swim against the tide to realise their vision for their schools. What's more, his approach has had the establishment seal of approval: he was awarded an OBE for services to education in the Queen's birthday honours list this year.

Birley Spa's pound;2.4 million building opened six years ago, offering a modern environment and the potential to open up its facilities to the community. The school's current approach to self-evaluation goes back to the same time. It adopted Index for Inclusion, a guide that helps schools adopt a self-review approach to analyse their inclusive cultures, policies and practices.

The guide helped the school conduct a survey on its strengths and weaknesses among parents, pupils, staff and governors. Any area where 60 per cent "strongly agreed" was seen as a strength, while any in which 9 per cent of respondents spotted weaknesses were flagged as areas for development.

One concern that the study highlighted was poor communication, says Dr Mawson. "The parents thought we had a problem with bullying. Ofsted didn't, and we didn't, but the perception was that we hadn't got an anti-bullying policy. We had - we give it out to children when they enter reception."

The response was to launch a termly newsletter, Inclusive News. The school also set up "satellite groups" of staff, parents and pupils to deal with any issues raised, and launched a support group for parents who didn't feel comfortable taking their concerns to staff.

These working groups are not tokenistic, insists Dr Mawson - and he says they're popular with teachers.

"They work to provide solutions that the senior management team have put into action," he says. "They have real power and they can make things happen."

Birley Spa has training school status and has built a solid track record of continuing professional development. Fourteen of its 17 teachers have studied for MAs through the school's link with Sheffield Hallam university.

Inclusion co-ordinator Ian Read, who played a key role in the school's consultations with its community, has written a book drawing on that experience, Developing Inclusive Practice. Birley Spa also arranges weekly adult education classes in subjects requested by local people.

Courses have included ICT and qualifications in childcare, and the school offers progression routes through Sheffield college.

Geoff Mawson said: "We have reached a stage where staff, parents and pupils are engaged in the process of evaluation and improvement. It has become part of our school and continues to develop almost organically.

"It's not something you could do quickly to satisfy Ofsted. It's got to be part of the culture of the school to involve people in the community in the education of their children."

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