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It's not a place you would associate with miracles, but something remarkable is happening in a small corner of London's East End. Teachers have rediscovered weekends and started to recognise former friends and family as they slowly come to terms with a life no longer ruled by stress. No, they haven't put Prozac in the water at Gainsborough primary. Quite simply, the Newham school has computerised its planning.
Gone are the long hours spent writing weekly and termly plans. Now teachers just download Microsoft Word templates from the centralised system and tailor them to fit their pupils and classes. Some of them use their own laptops while others make printouts from school PCs. What used to take up to five hours a week, most of it on a Sunday, now takes as little as 45 minutes. It sounds simple, yet it has radically improved the teachers'
Year 3 teacher Roger Simpson, who has taught at the school for 14 of the 27 years he has been in the profession, has seen his social life decline rapidly in the past decade. But he claims the balance is swinging back in his favour. "More Roger, less Mr Simpson," he says. "The weekends no longer have the pall of Sunday planning looming over them. I used to spend up to two hours in school on Thursday evening with the other year teacher and our laptops. I'd then spend the weekend dreading Sunday evenings, when I would do another three-hour stretch. Now I can pretty much do it all on the Thursday. Which leaves more time for marking and preparing, and for socialising and being me."
Headteacher Wendy Arnot and her senior management team at the 430-pupil school hit on computerised planning while searching for a way of keeping teachers at Gainsborough. An Ofsted inspection in March 2001 highlighted the negative impact of staff turnover on pupils' attainment; in the two years before the inspection, the school had lost 18 teachers. The inspectors noted that "if duplication of planning were to be reduced considerably, so would teacher workload", giving teachers an incentive to stay.
Gainsborough was put in special measures in 1995 but, since Ms Arnot's appointment in 1996, things have improved. She pulled the school out of special measures in 1998 and, although it still has serious weaknesses, its key stage 2 national test results jumped in the three years to 2001. In English, 57 per cent achieved level 4, as did 71 per cent in science, compared with 41 per cent and 28 per cent respectively in 1998. With 60 per cent of children entitled to free school meals, 46 per cent with special educational needs, more than half with English as an additional language, a high pupil-mobility rate and a constant flow of refugee families, the school is never going to be a breeze to teach in, but time and again it was the planning issue that teachers complained about most.
"We had to tackle the staff turnover problem if the school was to continue to improve," says Ms Arnot. "Following consultations with all the staff, we decided to find a way of easing the planning burden. It took a lot of hard work to set up the system, and it is by no means perfect, but it seems to be working."
Teaching staff took on the initial task of inputting each year's weekly plans on to the main school computer soon after Ofsted left. "It was extremely hard work; having to key everything in added hours to the planning. But it is definitely the best thing that could have happened," says Year 4 teacher Felicity Coetzee. "When I talk to teacher friends I feel lucky to be teaching here with this system in place. They are all envious."
Ms Coetzee was shocked by the amount of planning involved in British teaching when she arrived from South Africa. She doubts she would have stayed much longer without the new system. "I used to dread the planning. Teaching is definitely much more fun now."
The need for fun in teaching is a point taken up by Ken Winger, development officer for a clutch of Newham schools, including Gainsborough. Mr Winger spent 21 years as a primary head before joining Newham education authority to offer support, advice and encouragement to school leaders such as Ms Arnot. "As a head, I was always saddened to see new teachers lose their enthusiasm and leave the profession because of the screeds of writing that went into planning a week's lessons. It always felt like a burden they could do without, when their core job - standing in front of a class and teaching - was difficult enough." With retention and recruitment an overriding concern, he says "anything that can bring fun back into a school has to be encouraged".
Mr Winger adds that teachers no longer need to "reinvent the wheel" and plan each lesson from scratch each year, nor do they have to plan in isolation as every teacher can see a programme for the whole school. He will be monitoring Gainsborough's progress to see if it can be applied elsewhere in the borough. "If this works, let's use it elsewhere, let's not throw it away," he says.
Ms Arnot emphasises that the system is not a panacea for all the school's problems, and that customising plans involves more than just "tweaking". A recent report from a "check-up" inspection echoes her reservations. The inspectors said the school continued to make progress in tackling its weaknesses, and they were pleased with the planning scheme, but warned about its inherent problems. "They said we needed to ensure that good links were maintained across the whole curriculum and that planning for the core subjects was thorough," says Ms Arnot. "But we were already aware of these dangers and are working to avoid them."
Her teachers agree that the system gives them "ownership" of the planning process and room for personal creativity. It also allows each teacher to learn not only from their own experience, but from that of others. "Seeing last year's plans allows you to look at what worked and what didn't, and change things accordingly," says Year 6 teacher Janine Ryan. "If you change year group, as I did, you can also see how last year's teacher tackled the topic and what resources they used. It gives you a starting point." Ms Ryan also believes the system has allowed her to take on more responsibilities after just two years in the profession. "I now have the time to handle the extra load of the science co-ordinator without it making even more inroads into my after-school life."
Although Gainsborough's teachers obviously welcome the changes to their lifestyles, Mr Winger warns that only when the system benefits teaching and learning can it be judged a success. "I wholeheartedly support Wendy Arnot and her team, but attainment is the real issue here," he says. He is disappointed that this year's key stage 2 results are slightly down on last year's and will be keeping his eye firmly on how the children perform. "Only when the results start moving up again will we know if the system is working."
But teachers are convinced their teaching skills can only improve under the system. "With the framework in place it is easier to concentrate on individual children's needs in each lesson. And we have much more time to consider what resources we are going to use, which makes my classes more interesting," says Year 2 teacher Alida Myburgh. She points out that, with every teacher able to access colleagues' plans, they can ensure there are no resource clashes. "We can move the curriculum map around so Year 1 and Year 6 classes are not all studying electricity and wanting circuit boards in the same week," she says. Ms Myburgh has just started saxophone lessons, an ambition she is fulfilling thanks to the extra personal time the scheme gives her.
Teachers are not the only ones to benefit from the system; everyone agrees the children are also reaping the rewards. "I no longer resent Monday mornings, because I've had a proper weekend," says Mr Simpson. "I'm more relaxed, and it must make a difference to the children."
Derek Hoddy, Mr Simpson's Year 5 colleague, agrees. "It is the first time in 25 years that I have not had to spend time rehashing plans," he says. "I now have more time to concentrate on the how rather than the what. My lessons must be better."
Mr Hoddy, who has rediscovered leisurely Sunday lunches and long walks with his family, says teachers are now more likely to volunteer for after-school clubs. "I'm happier now to spend an evening football training, because I've regained my weekend. The more the children mix after school, the better the spirit of the school becomes."
So, even if, as Wendy Arnot believes, there is much room for improvement, everyone wins. And as the scheme's main aims were to help recruit and, more importantly, retain teachers, the words of Roger Simpson, echoed by all the teachers, must be music to her ears: "I would make sure any other school offered the same sort of system before I could even consider leaving."