Closure threat spurred us on

4th June 2004 at 01:00
In special measures and threatened with oblivion, the future looked bleak for Gay Elms primary. But then it all changed. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Gay Elms Primary School.

School type: Community.

Improved results: Year 6 test results in English and maths well below average but improving. Improvement measure (an aggregate of the percentages in English, maths and science) up from 100 in 2002 to 132 in 2003.

Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 42.8 per cent.

Three years ago the people of Withywood in Bristol united in a campaign to save their primary school from closure. The threat galvanised the community and proved a turning point for once-failing Gay Elms primary school.

"It did this school a favour because it brought everybody together," says chair of governors Jackie Ball. "It was also a wake-up call for those in the LEA and local councillors who felt that people in Withywood lay back and took everything that was thrown at them. But now it's not the case.

People here will stand up to them."

Gay Elms sits amid post-war housing estates in south Bristol. Mrs Ball says local people are weary of the label "deprived", but the school has almost 43 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals.

In November 1999 the Office for Standards in Education put the school in special measures following poor leadership and management. The head and chair of governors duly resigned. Then in October 2000 Bristol city council earmarked Gay Elms for closure under a review of primary schools. This double blow drove many away - the school lost 85 children.

"What was particularly significant for the school was that they were 85 of the most able children," says the current head Annette Osborne.

Gay Elms won its reprieve in February 2001 following vociferous lobbying of Bristol city council by the local community. And it came out of special measures the following November under a troubleshooting advisory head. It has since made good progress. A recent Ofsted report praised Gay Elms primary, highlighting as particular strengths pupils' much improved behaviour, the school's care for pupils and its inclusive culture. It said the new head gives energetic and clear-sighted leadership, and is already successfully tackling key areas of the school's work to create an effective climate for learning.

Annette Osborne arrived in January 2003 to find a school still very demoralised: "There were a lot of things that needed to be done before we could move on.

"The children had really suffered through special measures. Self-esteem was a real issue because they took being put in special measures so personally."

Behaviour was also a major issue. Ms Osborne recalls her first day on dinner duty. "I was out in the playground watching the children - they only had one ball between 200 pupils. "At the end of the dinner time more children had done runners and were on the other side of the railings than were left in the playground."

Talking to children, she found that some classes had had four or five different teachers in the space of a year. And she was appalled to hear year 6 children tell of a teacher who had written D for dunce on pupils'


She says she began by showing pupils and staff that she was listening. She met each teacher and classroom assistant individually, and held an in-service day for staff and governors to discuss the school's direction. A major focus was on raising pupil's self-esteem. The school introduced team points for key stage 2 children, a school council was set up and badges were awarded for responsibility. Ms Osborne also introduced a school camp and as many outside visits as the school could muster, as well as a range of after-school and breakfast clubs "The children started to gel - they got close to each other, and we were seeing aspects of them we had never seen at school," she says. "And they started to trust us. Some of the children had been very closed to staff, but they started to open up."

Another task was to give staff more stability. Many were on fixed-term contracts because of uncertainty over the school's future. The governors set about making permanent contracts for those who wanted them.

Under the old regime parents were not encouraged into school. Annette Osborne opened the school up, starting a regular newsletter and providing a meeting room for parents to chat over coffee.

"It was a bit of a culture shock because before we weren't allowed in," says parent and chair of governors Jackie Ball. "We were totally ignored: parents weren't part of the school."

The school grounds, once an evening stomping ground for the estate's youths, have been secured. A boarded-up house next door, formerly the home of squatters, has been renovated at the local authority's expense, and a new caretaker installed to protect the site. The governing body has also seen a transformation, with an influx of new people and others queuing to join. "They are tremendous," says Ms Osborne. "I have never seen such a turnaround in a group of people and I have to say it's largely down to Jackie as chair. She whips them into shape."

She admits the school still has some way to go in terms of standards. While its key stage 2 Sats results in science are broadly in line with national expectations, maths and English are way below. Ofsted conceded that these results reflect past uncertainties over the school's future. Its Year 6 results have improved since 2002, and Annette Osborne says she expects to see standards rising steadily. Pupil numbers have increased again and the school is currently full. "The school has capacity for improvement," she says. "We know where we're going. We have that direction, we have a lot of support."

Bristol city council has said that the future of Gay Elms will not come under scrutiny again for another five years. That should be time enough, says Ms Osborne.

"We are very confident that it won't be the same again. And as for those councillors who remember this lot of parents from the last time - well, I wouldn't want to be the people who took them on."

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