Get better and better

8th October 2004 at 01:00
How a Telford school has improved year-on-year for a decade. Phil Revell reports

Name: St Matthew's Church of England primary school, Donnington, Telford.

Improved results:1994

KS2 percentage level 4 or above:English 21 per cent

Maths 28 per cent

Science 31 per cent


KS2 percentage level 4 or above:English 88 per cent

Maths 91 per cent

Science 100 per cent

Next month's key stage 2 league tables will generate the usual crop of superlatives, as schools celebrate their success.

But one West Midlands primary has set a benchmark in performance that will pose a challenge for heads aiming for a position at the top of the tree.

St Matthew's in Donnington hasn't achieved a perfect 100 per cent score.

English is still a sore point with head Glen Calcutt, with 88 per cent of pupils getting level 4 or above. But St Matthew's figures improved this year, as they did last year, and the year before that. The school has seen a year-on-year improvement going back to 1994, which Mr Calcutt suspects might just be a record.

St Matthew's used to be a struggling primary in a distinctly unfashionable district of Shropshire's Telford new town. Mr Calcutt arrived 18 years ago and was soon promoted to the headship of the school. Kate Clark, the present deputy head, followed shortly afterwards.

"It was a real challenge," she recalled. "The whole school's self-esteem was pretty low and the children were very challenging. We had parents who used to kick their children through the door, shouting 'You can have him'."

The current situation is somewhat different. The 2004 value-added figure is 103.2, showing a massive improvement between key stages 1 and 2 and placing the school in the top 5 per cent of English primaries. The school was given beacon status by the Government, ministers pop in and out, and parents are fighting to get their children on to the roll.

"The school was full," said Claire and John Bedford, who were desperate for a place for their son Harry. "He went to another local primary, but we phoned every Monday and, at Easter, a place became available. He's come on by leaps and bounds since then."

Parents from the leafy estates on the edge of Telford are now keen to get their children into the school, a situation that would have amazed anyone familiar with St Matthew's past reputation.

"For the first time we have seen our free school meals figures dip below 50 per cent," said Mr Calcutt, who nevertheless shares with his governors a determination that St Matthew's will remain a school for Donnington children. There are no plans to expand.

"We have looked at the problem of competition for places, but we take local children first and we always will," said Linda Bayliss, a parent governor who is a teaching assistant at the school.

The massive transformation was down to persistence and sheer hard work in the early days. Mr Calcutt insisted on a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. He would keep whole classes in at lunchtime and break, but he was also willing to spend time with children who had problems.

Gradually the approach became less about control and more about learning, but with an individual focus. This is the Government's personalised learning approach, except that Mr Calcutt and his teachers have been using it for years.

"In an environment like this you have to have a child-centred approach; you have to target the child individually within a structure," says Kate Clark.

"There's no looseness; a lot of it is incredibly tight and rigorous."

The school gives a lot of responsibility to children. A buddy system pairs 10-year-olds with younger pupils. The Year 6 class base is next door to Reception, a placing that would horrify many teachers. But it allows the older children to model behaviour for the younger ones. The same principle is at work at playtimes, when infants and juniors play in the same space.

Mr Calcutt has always invested in his staff, and in the days when he could not afford teaching assistants he used to invite parents to come in as a mums' army of helpers. Those who stayed found themselves on training courses, picking up more qualifications. When the new higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) qualification came in, Mr Calcutt and his team looked at it, but few of his teaching assistants were interested.

"It's a minimum standard - our TAs are way beyond that," he says. "They sail through NVQ level 3. They could comfortably take a class for a whole morning."

This belief in the power of learning is allied to a refusal to accept limits on what anyone can do, child or adult.

"We have such energetic, enthusiastic and willing children. They are a pleasure to be with. That's the real mark of the school's achievement," he says.

And how much of this is due to the man in the head's office?

"Fundamentally it's been about leadership," says Kate Clark. "Glen has always had a passion to make this school the best. He impacts on everybody, from the screaming child who doesn't want to come to the school, to the TA who has been here for years."

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