League toppers share secrets of their success

17th December 2010 at 00:00
Helen Ward talks to the four table-topping schools about how they stay on winning form

This year's primary league tables already seem to belong to a past era. The Sats boycott in May saw results withheld for almost a quarter of schools, but already interest is focused on what will happen next year.

The Government has proposed a new floor target of 60 per cent of pupils reaching level 4 in both English and maths. Schools will also be judged on how much progress is made by pupils between the ages of seven and 11. Under this system, 962 schools this year would be classed as failing, facing closure or take-over.

KS2 assessment review chair Lord Bew, whose remit is to reduce teaching to the test, is due to report in June after next year's Sats. Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb has said that although the league tables reveal many first-class schools, too many children - particularly boys on free school meals - are being let down by the system.

Helen Ward talks to the four table-topping schools about how they stay on winning form.


Five years ago, Jan Taylor watched parents walk past the half-full Pilgrim School in Rochester, Kent, on their way to other primaries.

"The roll was very small," she said. "We had to get children to come to the school. We put in a lot of work to make sure teaching and learning were at the highest level. We got involved with all the support there was in the community to promote the school."

This week, Pilgrim School was named the most improved in the country. Its average point score rose from 21.9 in 2007, when just 43 per cent of pupils gained the expected level 4 in English and 38 per cent did so in maths, to 27.8 this year, when 90 per cent of pupils reached the grade in English and 77 per cent in maths.

Mrs Taylor, who joined the school as deputy head, sympathises with parents and teachers, who faced a difficult situation when its predecessor schools - Borstal Manor Junior and St Matthew's Infants - were merged to form Pilgrim.

The Church of England school originally opened in the old buildings as planning permission for a new home was initially turned down. But permission was eventually granted and in 2008 Pilgrim School moved to its new site.

Mrs Taylor remembers 2007 as a particularly hard year. That group of children had only been with them 18 months and a high percentage had special educational needs.

The pupils who took the exams this year have been at Pilgrim for almost their entire education and Mrs Taylor hopes this is what made the difference.

"In a couple of years you can make some difference, but not as distinctive as what we're seeing now," she said.

Mrs Taylor became head in April and is keen to enrich the curriculum still further. Last week, the school curriculum was temporarily suspended while the Pilgrim School University was piloted. Children were invited to take courses run by staff in subjects ranging from sport science to history of art. The only thing that had to be cancelled was a planned trip to a dry ski slope - ironically because there was too much snow.

The children worked across year groups and the experiment was deemed such a success that it is to be repeated each term.

Pilgrim School is now full, with 245 pupils on roll and a waiting list. Mrs Taylor said: "I still try to keep sight of our roots and that vision of making this school the first choice for the children of Borstal.

"I have a brilliant staff, who turn up every day with smiles on their faces to make this a place where everybody wants to be."


Manuden Primary is a small school with an enviable record. Last year, all 13 of its Year 6 pupils left with the higher level 5 grade in English and maths.

Pauline Gordon has been acting head of the village school near Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, since September, while headteacher Linda Talbot is doing school improvement work for Essex County Council.

Mrs Gordon said: "It is just a delightful school with strong community links and very experienced and hardworking staff.

"Teachers have very high expectations of themselves and the children, and the curriculum we offer here is very varied."

Manuden Primary's involvement with school sport partnerships has been particularly beneficial.

The pound;162 million scheme could be axed next March, but there have been strong protests against the decision.

Mrs Gordon said the school's partnership with the local secondary had meant pupils had the chance to use facilities and to take part in the sorts of sporting events which the primary would never have been able to provide.

"I really hope the Government changes its mind," she added.


This year, South Farnham School in Surrey got the largest number of pupils - 126 - to level 4 in English, maths and science. Its level 5 results were similarly impressive, with 79 per cent in English and 85 per cent in maths.

Headteacher Andrew Carter now feels it is time to become an academy.

"There is a consultation process underway about amalgamating us with an infant school," he said. "The proposed new school would be South Farnham Primary. Then hopefully we will become an academy in September."


For Liz Hills, executive head of Ilderton Primary School in south London, the key to great success is a curriculum rich in opportunities for all.

"We pride ourselves on knowing every individual child," she said. "Recently, we had a kids' cooking school here and we chose the `invisible' children to take part - those who sit there and work but never really stick out. We chose 30 to make pizzas and they had a whale of a time."

About 40 per cent of pupils at the school claim free school meals and 25 per cent have English as an additional language.

This year, 95 per cent reached level 4 in English and maths, but it was its contextual value added score of 105.2 that propelled Ilderton to the top of the tables.

Mrs Hills has been at the school since joining as a deputy in 1990. She became head in 2007 and is now head of a federation with Eveline Lowe Primary, which was in special measures but came out in 2009.

She is keen on music: the school runs three choirs, a steel band and a brass band, and it has a platinum Sing Up award.

Mrs Hills said: "I haven't got my budget for next year yet, but I would hate cuts to affect the arts and sports that we do because it's the children that suffer."

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