No place like home

25th April 2008 at 01:00
It's like one big happy family at a Wirral school, where ex pupils are a growing part of the teaching staff. Alison Brace gets the warm fuzzy feeling of the alma mater

It's like one big happy family at a Wirral school, where ex pupils are a growing part of the teaching staff. Alison Brace gets the warm fuzzy feeling of the alma mater

Having a former pupil join the staff always has a certain novelty value. But St John Plessington Catholic College in the Wirral is so well- versed in welcoming back past pupils that the novelty is in danger of wearing off.

At the latest count, and the number keeps growing, 12 former pupils were rubbing shoulders with their old teachers. Up until two years ago there were only four.

"The momentum has suddenly grown," says Ian Walker, deputy head. "Some pupils are teachers, some are learning coaches, and others are teaching assistants."

Hannah Wilson joined the 1,300-pupil comprehensive last February as a newly qualified teacher in RE. The 23-year-old still has a sister in Year 7 and her mother is a former pupil.

"I had thought about teaching when I was here, but I didn't expect to get a job at my old school," says Hannah.

And while the buildings might have been upgraded, what hasn't changed, she says, is the school's ethos. "There is still a family vibe and a lovely community feel.

"When I started teaching, a couple of the teachers who were here when I was a pupil came to my classroom to make sure I was okay or to see if I needed a chat."

Liz McNally, the key stage 3 English co-ordinator, rejoined her old school in 2006. She was a pupil between 1987 and 1994.

She was surprised to discover that 11 of her colleagues had also returned to their alma mater. "It's great so many people want to come back. It's positive for the school."

For her, returning to the school was a professional decision. "At first, I wondered if it would be weird, but professionally it was the right move," says Liz, 32.

"Most of the staff had changed, but it was still strange calling those who had taught me by their first name. It's not that I've forgotten about being a pupil here - I still socialise with my old schoolfriends - but there's an element of them being my schooldays and this is my professional career.

"I was happy here as a pupil, and it's a good place to work. It's nice to put something back into the community."

Last November, Ofsted said St John Plessington was "an outstanding school in which exceptional things happen". In February, Jim Knight, the schools minister, singled the school out as one of the most improved in the country following publication of key stage 3 results.

Tom Quinn, the headteacher, regards the returnees as playing a key part in the school's success, helping to build important bridges between teachers and pupils.

He believes this is especially true of teaching assistants and the team of learning coaches that he introduced in September 2006. These non-teaching members of staff are assigned a year group and meet individual pupils once a term to monitor their progress and set targets for improvement.

Last year's Ofsted report talked of the school's "outstanding academic monitoring and support", and the system has just been granted the Government's Leading Aspect award, recognising best practice.

Ian Walker and a team of learning coaches are due to present the school's approach at a national conference in July.

Power to relate

Anna Sutton, 26, returned to her old school in 2003 to fill a gap year after university before taking a PGCE in primary education.

She enjoyed her year at St John Plessington so much that she only stayed two months on the PGCE course before coming back, where she is now the learning coach for Year 7 pupils.

"The year I'd had at St John Plessington taught me a lot and I love working with the older pupils," says Anna. "It was an amazing experience for me."

Anna, whose three siblings attended the school, has no regrets about dropping her PGCE course. "My experience here as a pupil made all of this happen and continues to influence the pupils I work with today," she says. "They love that I was a pupil here. I find that I can use my school experiences to mirror things that they may be going through. I also think they find comfort in the fact that I went to school with an aunt or an uncle of theirs."

As she reels off the staff who taught her and are still at the school, she says: "It must make them feel old, and I do make a point of winding them up. "I still call all of them Mr and Mrs. I find it hard to call teachers who taught me by their first names."

Her "weirdest" experience, she says, was her first staff night out. "It was strange seeing them socialising and dressed down. You look up to teachers and put them on a pedestal. Then you get older and realise they're normal."

As more pupils return to work at their old school, staff joke that there's "no place like home" and that pupils "liked the experience so much, they stayed". Ian Walker believes the staff who experience the school through their teenage years provide an invaluable source of knowledge for the school's senior management team.

"These people who have come back to school know what it's like to be a pupil here," he says. "They've even sat at the same desks. It means that we have people who buy into what the senior team are doing; the tone and the ethos of the school."

Jan Davis was a pupil in the late 1970s at a convent school that later merged to become part of St John Plessington. She says it was strange when her own daughters, now 16 and 19, joined the school.

She was a foundation governor for five years, and then rejoined as a learning coach 18 months ago. She is now the learning coach for the 227 pupils in Year 10.

"I have never felt as passionately about a job before," says Jan, who works with 227 Year 10 pupils. "The relationships between staff and pupils are fabulous."

Eileen Britton, her former music teacher, still works on a supply basis at the school. "I still have to call her Miss Britton, I can't call her by her first name," says Jan.

Obviously, the magnetism of the school is catching. Jan's daughter Grace, currently studying at Liverpool John Moores University, now wants to return to teach English.


Matthew Davies, 24, English and PE teacher

Jan Davis, learning coach

Michael Farrelly, 22, ICT teacher

Liz Hale, 31, teaching assistant

Ann Hill, 49, history and vocational studies teacher

Lindsey Holland, 29, key stage 3 RE co-ordinator

Laurence Holmes, 25, teaching assistant

Alan Jones, 33, teaching assistant

Emma Johnson, 19, teaching assistant

Liz McNally, 32, key stage 3 English co-ordinator

Anna Sutton, 26, learning coach

Hannah Wilson, 24, RE teacher.

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