If you don't enjoy it, what's the point?

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Martin Whittaker on a creative approach to getting out of special measures

Name St George the Martyr C of E primary school. School type Voluntary aided. Proportion of children eligible for free school meals 39 per cent. Improved results In 2000, 52 per cent of pupils gained at least level 4 in English, 28 per cent in maths and 32 per cent in science. In 2003 they were 92 per cent, 88 per cent and 92 per cent

The first thing you notice as you walk into St George the Martyr primary school is the artwork on the walls. Every corridor and classroom wall is a riot of colour, with paintings, drawings and collages. Pupils have made vibrantly-coloured banners displaying shapes from buildings in the surrounding area, which will soon go on display in Camden High Street.

Music and drama are also much in evidence at this inner-London primary.

Every classroom is named after a composer, from Benjamin Britten to Burt Bacharach. Members of the London Symphony Orchestra have come in to play and do workshops with the children. And every Tuesday morning the school holds breakfast club drama sessions for pupils.

Headteacher Amanda Szewczyk-Radley says the arts are her first love. They were her specialism as a classroom teacher and now in her first headship she is currently making the arts her "third year drive".

For her first two years in the post she and her deputy Simon Knowles were preoccupied with pulling the school out of special measures after one newspaper branded it the "School of shame".

Despite the blow to staff morale and damage to the school's image, she says being in special measures turned out to be a mixed blessing. "Probably the best thing that ever happened was to go into special measures. It meant that we got additional funding, and we had the most amazing support from the local authority.

"Had it not happened, we might have just limped on and struggled to try and improve."

St George was placed in special measures in November 2000 following a staffing crisis. The head was on long-term sick leave, five other experienced teachers had left and there was no deputy. Since then its key stage 2 results have shown a huge improvement. In December, the school was declared the third most improved nationally.

The school has a very high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language - many are from local African or Bangladeshi communities - and of children eligible for free school meals (39 per cent).

Mrs Szewczyk-Radley talks passionately about her belief that, beyond performance tables and literacy and numeracy strategies, education should be fun.

In one classroom she points out a much-travelled teddy bear who goes abroad with staff and parents, a map of the world showing his travels and photos of him in exotic locations. In the school's last Office for Standards in Education inspection report in May 2002, inspectors praised Mrs Szewczyk-Radley and Mr Knowles for their good leadership and management.

But she says much progress had already been made by the acting head who preceded her. "One of the good things about coming in was that there was a lot of information for me to take," she says. "Because the school had been in special measures, the authority had worked really hard on producing a very detailed action plan. But it still felt like the most enormous mountain to climb. My biggest concern was what was the children's experience and what were they getting out of their day."

One of the key issues raised by Ofsted was the need to raise standards in English. The school has looked at how it timetables literacy, put in extra support, and used Camden education authority's literacy advisory team to help train staff.

Mrs Szewczyk-Radley and her deputy have developed strong links with businesses with help from Camden LEA. Volunteers from nearby law firm Nabarro Nathanson come in every day to help children with reading.

"The adults get a lot out of it because they're removed from the world of business, and for the children it's great to see a different person coming in on a regular basis," she says.

Another policy has been to develop relationships with parents to involve them more in the school. There are family learning sessions, and a parents' meeting at the start of each year to help staff learn as much as they can about their pupils.

"In the end what we're saying to our parents is you are the experts on our children. You have the expert knowledge of your children, and if we don't share that we lose out," says Mrs Szewczyk-Radley.

She and her staff have also boosted the school's use of the rich educational resources on its doorstep. Pupils go on regular trips to the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall, the British Museum, and the British Library.

Once a year the school holds a film week, where every class goes off to Leicester Square to see a movie and does work based on it in class. For nursery-age children staff create a cinema in a classroom, complete with rows of seats and film posters - teachers even dress up as usherettes. "I think the children only learn well when they really enjoy themselves," says Mrs Szewczyk-Radley.

"The children have to want to do the work, the staff have to want to be here, everyone has to want to have a nice time. But if you don't have fun and you don't laugh and you don't enjoy it, what's the point?"

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