Ofsted on sea

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Its fishing fleet might have dwindled and Butlins is long gone, but Filey has a new attraction: its schools. Young families are flocking to the Yorkshire coastal town - and the chief inspector is impressed, reports Elaine Williams

Even on a grey day in late winter, Filey has a quiet beauty, an understated, faded grandeur. The elegant facade of the Crescent, built in the 1850s and once the most fashionable address in the north of England, still dominates the sea front. It stands sentinel over the bay with its vast swathe of beach stretching to the Brigg, a finger of sand and stone reaching out into the North Sea and teeming with bird life. Little has changed for decades.

Filey's people are proud that the town remains much as it has been for the past 100 years - in lighter moments, some have mooted putting gates at both ends of the town and declaring independence - but they are concerned for its future. They are concerned that the population has twice the national average of over-65s; they are concerned about prospects for its youngsters.

And that is why they take so much pride in their schools.

Filey may have only 7,000 residents, no supermarket, no leisure or sports complex and no industry to speak of - the fishing fleet has dwindled to five boats, and tourism was badly hit when Butlins, which brought in 10,000 visitors a year, closed in the 1980s. Filey may be an hour from the nearest motorway. But it does have its schools - and its schools, say many of its citizens, are its future.

In the chief inspector of schools' latest annual report, Filey secondary, or "top school" as all the locals know it because it is up the hill on the way out of town, has lived up to its nickname: it has followed in the footsteps of Filey's infant and junior schools by appearing on David Bell's commended list. All three have been ranked as outstanding by Ofsted over the past two years.

This has been achieved even though the town is one of the most deprived wards in North Yorkshire; young families, many from West Yorkshire, have been attracted to live in the resort they remember from their childhood holidays. But, alongside these incomers, wealthier families from further afield, the south and the Midlands, are also looking for homes in Filey - family accommodation is at a premium - drawn by the reputation of its schools, which have become a force for achievement and change.

The schools' three headteachers are supported by a band of citizens who ensure the goals of school and town are synchronised. For example, as well as being chair of the secondary school, David Wilson, a ward manager at Bridlington and District hospital, is chair of governors at Filey juniors.

He is also chair of the local branch of the RNLI, and vice-chair of Filey Lions.

According to Aileen Newbury, Filey's mayor, a jaunty and outspoken migrant from Kent, the town has more than 60 active organisations, and people wear many hats. Town councillor John Haxby is also governor of two schools, as well as being an auxiliary coastguard. Sara Boden, Filey's trendy hairdresser, is a governor at the infants and juniors. Jo Ward is chair of governors at the infants, while husband John, deputy at Filey secondary, is also deputy coxswain of Filey's all-weather lifeboat (see Get a life, Friday, March 7). And so it goes on. Such cosiness could be stultifying, but in Filey it has become a force for innovation.

If the schools are successful, staff and citizens believe people will be attracted to the resort, and their children will go to university and come back to develop their professions and businesses. New housing is planned.

Indeed, in the 10 years it has taken the high school to raise the number of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs from 29 per cent to 66 per cent, its intake has almost doubled to 800. The junior school has also doubled in size to nearly 330 pupils during the same period.

David Wilson admits that in the past "top school" was not a place you went to work; gaining a good education wasn't a priority for its pupils because there were plenty of seasonal jobs. He says Kerin Rees, who was head of Filey secondary for 14 years until last Christmas, and is now a consultant headteacher for North Yorkshire, has succeeded in selling education to the town.

Miss Rees says this was achieved in three stages. The first was to give pupils a stake in their schooling; in her first year of headship she established a school council. She also developed a rewards system, based on credits for achievement, improvement and effort. Second, she started a painstaking review of all departments, observing teaching, target-setting and development plans, and monitoring achievement through performance management, which she is now rolling out across the authority. Third, she established strong links with her feeder primaries and infants, exchanging staff and expertise.

One of her technology teachers was seconded to the primaries one morning a week, a role he still fulfils in retirement. In the summer term after SATs, primary pupils visit the secondary to use the technology and science facilities. Filey secondary's head of maths also works in the primaries, teaching alongside class teachers, taking out bright pupils for SATs preparation or working with slower learners. Primary staff have held training for secondary staff on mounting displays in school. Perhaps most radical, some teaching assistants move up with their pupils, swapping one school and one sector for another. "We have so much to learn from one another," says Miss Rees.

Although one in four of the school's pupils has special needs, above the national average of 18 per cent, Miss Rees radically transformed the examination culture in Filey school, beginning by holding exams for Year 8 in the hall. She says: "It is a discipline we must give our pupils because that is how we and they are judged."

John Ward, who has taught at Filey secondary for the last 21 years, says staff are fired by the success. He is heartened that when Filey pupils visit Scarborough sixth-form college - also commended by the chief inspector this year - he has to hire a coach rather than a minibus. Seventy students each year now go on to further academic study and another 40 pursue vocational courses in FE.

New head Lorraine Gill took over the school in January. She acknowledges the achievement of her predecessor - who, unusually, remains in the school teaching English part-time - and wants to build on her success, to create an "outstanding school for the 21st century". She is fighting for accommodation to support increasing pupil numbers, particularly sports facilities to match the school's achievement in this area. Filey secondary, like the juniors, has a reputation for team sport and produces many county players.

Mrs Gill plans to introduce e-learning and links with other schools in other countries through ICT. A former deputy at a Hull secondary, she is well aware of the need to open up the all-white culture of this eastern seaboard, and is looking to develop cultural exchanges. She has appointed a multicultural co-ordinator for the task.

Pupils are already looking beyond Filey's borders. Matthew Holah, 14, and Sarah Harley, 15, both Year 10 school councillors, both aim to move on to sixth-form college and then to university. "But we will want to come back, definitely," says Matthew.

The push for excellence starts in Filey nursery and infant school, where headteacher Janet Wharrier has made it her business to tackle the low level of language development among many children. The proportion of special needs pupils in the school is 30 per cent, but staff work hard to turn out good independent communicators.

At Filey juniors, a beacon school, headteacher Richard Hirst guards his table full of sporting trophies with pride and praises his award-winning choir, "which is open to anybody from Year 4, whether they can sing a note or not". This straight-talking Yorkshireman, head of the school for more than 22 years, strives to offer his pupils - one in four of whom qualify for free school meals - as many opportunities as possible, as well as a broad and challenging curriculum. Every night, badminton, cricket, table tennis or rugby is on offer as well as dance or singing. "High expectations - that is our ethos, whether in academic terms or in offering all the extras," says Mr Hirst. "I want my pupils to look back and feel they were given every chance to achieve excellence in a way I never was in my schooling."

Mrs Gill, as the most recent incomer, speaks for many when she says: "Filey may not be a rich town, but it is rich in talent."

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