Faith, hope and clarity

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh visits a school which received a glowing OFSTED report despite its depressed location.

The report on Strand junior's spring term OFSTED inspection is unequivocal. "Strand Junior School is an excellent school" it says, going on to explain that the children "make very good progress and produce work of high quality. . . These achievements are commendable and reflect the effective management of the school, high expectations of the staff and the efforts which both teachers and children put into teaching and learning."

The really good thing, though, is that this is just the kind of school that will benefit from such a boost to the self-esteem, serving, as it does, an area of high unemployment close to the now almost idle Grimsby fish docks.

Grimsby, at the end of the long haul along the Humber Estuary, has always looked eastward to the sea rather than inland to the industrial heart. This was a matter of pride in the days when Grimsby trawlers put fish on our plates. Now, though, the fishing has gone, and Grimsby is chilled by the same economic wind that blows through the inland cities. Strand's chair of governors, the Reverend Wendy Isam, knows the area well. "I feel quite strongly about it really. The dock was like a town in itself once - industry, shops, crowds of people. Now you go down there and it's dead. Something like that is bound to be reflected in the school, and Tom has done really well to build it up."

Tom Wilson, the head, came to Strand in 1990 when it had a reputation for intractable problems. Steve Wigley, who arrived as a new teacher at the same time as Tom Wilson, remembers those early days very clearly. "The first month I spent here was the worst month of my life. I had one girl who never sat down in her place for the whole year."

Right from the start, Tom Wilson set out to improve discipline and to raise expectations and self esteem. "I believe children are here to work, and that they should get success from working."

With an eye to evidence gathering, he began to record performance indicators that would, he hoped, mark out the school's steady improvement. He began to test children and to keep portfolios of work. He also started to record disciplinary incidents on computer - "I entered anything major that was reported to me - who it was, what it was."

Given that in 1990 OFSTED was a mere twinkle in the Government's eye, this shows remarkable foresight. "I was able to show the inspectors how the incidents have fallen over a four-year period." It is an approach that is marked by rigour and a belief in excellence. At the same time, though, Tom Wilson falls into no easily-labelled category.

For instance, given that one of his first and enduring aims has been to raise reading standards, it comes as something of a surprise to find that, though there is a phonics programme, the school has no reading scheme. He feels that the key to reading improvement is in the quality of the teaching - "I want teachers who can teach reading". And he also believes that his pupils, whose home lives often lack colour and imaginative sweep, deserve something better than a dreary march through a series of numbered books.

In this area, too, he has kept a careful record of improvement. "I knew if I couldn't get the children to read, people would say it was because of using real books. But I am able to show graphic evidence of the standard of reading steadily going up."

The first thing that strikes the visitor to Strand is the way that staff and governors have worked to give the children an environment that contrasts strongly with the harshness of the building's exterior and surroundings. There have been building improvements - to the entrance area for example - and the display work is consistently eye-catching. Everywhere, too, are pupil-designed murals as a clear expression of the principle that pupils will take care of decor which they have produced for themselves.

Particularly interesting, though, is that when you stop to think, you realise that there is a pleasing uniformity about it all. Classrooms all show the same organisational details: corridor displays all share a common style. The reason lies in one of the most remarkable things about Strand - of the seven classes, six are taught by teachers who came new from college within the past three years. All have been, as it were, trained in the Strand way by Tom Wilson.

It is a policy which drives a coach and horses through the view that challenging children need experienced teachers. Mr Wilson explains that he wants "people with the energy to work with energetic children, and the imagination to inspire them". Of course, having young teachers also helps the budget, and class sizes are all around a healthy 25.

It works, very clearly, because this is a head who, although possessing considerable personal charisma, leaves nothing to chance. There are policies and routines for everything, all summarised in a "Ten-second guide" that acts as a quick reference. New teachers are quickly introduced to the way things work. "I sit down with them in the classroom and ask how they are going to organise things." As a result, "It's easy to get a whole-school approach, and perhaps one of our strengths is that we end up with everyone working together in the same sort of way."

Karen Leather, one year into the job, has, for example, learned the value of giving praise. "A lot of the children think they're not good at anything, and it's so good to see their faces when you say that something's brilliant. It puts them on a high and they keep going."

During the day, Tom Wilson is out and about in the school. "I do monitor closely everything that goes on, I believe it is my job to do that. The administration can be done after 3.30."

The leadership qualities of the head show in so many ways - in good humoured and lively assemblies, in the way that the children and adults greet him as he goes around. Steve Wigley speaks of his head's "vision combined with commitment, and his ability to choose the right people on interview. We all seem to be creative in different ways. Tom explains the way he wants things and then lets us develop."

The Wilson policy, explained Steve Wigley, is one of continuous improvement. "He's never satisfied. . . He never allows us to stagnate. We never have time to sit back and stop learning."

Tom Wilson himself, who goes climbing each summer in the Himalayas, uses a mountaineering metaphor. "I think of a scree slope. You can't stand still on a scree slope. You're either going up or sliding down. Being a head is like that."

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