The price of perfection

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Room for improvement? Not at the handful of schools that consistently score full marks in national tests. But living up to such success can weigh heavily on teachers and pupils, reports Elaine Williams.

Schools at the top of the league tables have only one way to go - down. At least that's what Margaret Ryall, headteacher of Our Lady of Victories Roman Catholic primary school in Putney, London, is telling her pupils. Our Lady's is one of a handful of primary schools in which all pupils have achieved level 4 or above at the end of key stage 2 for three years out of the four that results have been published. And as the new term gathers momentum and national tests beckon, Mrs Ryall is talking to pupils about the tests in a bid to alleviate the pressure of trying to live up to the school's 100 per cent record.

When last summer's results were published at the end of 1999, schools such as Our Lady's enjoyed the warmth of press adoration. "The best schools in the country," headlines proclaimed. But the praise is doubled-edged and the ensuing pressure on pupils great.

"The first year we got 100 per cent it was very exciting - a novelty," Mrs Ryall says. "The second year we thought, 'Gosh! where do we go from here?' After the third year, governors began to think we should prepare the school for not always being at the top. We don't expect to get 100 per cent this year. We have two or three special needs children in Year 6 and a boy from Hong Kong who spoke no English when he arrived.

"We don't want to be known as the school that gets 100 per cent, because when we don't make it, we don't want parents to point the finger and say 'your child was not up to scratch and has spoiled it for the others'."

When the family from Hong Kong approached Our Lady's for a place for their son in his last primary year, Mrs Ryall knew the boy's presence would affect the school's examination record. Because her school is oversubscribed and full for most of the time, Mrs Ryall had the option of turning him away. "Fortunately I checked myself in time," she says. "I thought, the school is here to serve the children. Blow the league tables!" St Michael's Bamford Church of England school near Rochdale, Lancashire, which scored 100 per cent in English, maths and science in 1997 and 1998, missed the bull's eye by just three points in 1999 because of one child's exam nerves on the day. Deputy head Aiden Gumbley is relieved the spell has been broken because of the real and terrible pressure some children feel not to let the side down. "I reckon it has helped to reduce levels of stress a little," he says.

Hutton Rudby primary in North Yorkshire, which, like Our Lady's, has had a 100 per cent record for the past three years, is also preparing to fall short of the golden goal this year because of a special needs child in Year 6. But, in any case, many of the teachers believe the league tables do not reflect the school's real achievement: that most of its pupils achieve level 5 and above. Of the 28 pupils assessed in 1999, 54 per cent reached level 5 in English, 86 per cent in maths and 96 per cent in science. Eleven per cent gained level 6 in maths. In 1997 the level 5 scores were 71 per cent, 86 per cent and 82 per cent respectively.

Although these schools will tell you they have a "broad and balanced" curriculum and that they are strong on music and sport, they all teach reading, writing and maths over and above the requirements of the Government's numeracy and literacy strategies. They also spend weeks preparing and revising for the test. Aiden Gumbley has no doubts about the benefits. Testing is an intrinsic part of life at his school. "We take testing seriously for the sake of the children's future," he says. "Throughout their lives they will be faced with exams, so the sooner we teach exam technique the better for them."

Amanda Beauland, Hutton Rudby's acting head, is proud of her children's discipline and concentration. Indeed, in the middle of a wet playtime, when many schools struggle to cope with the frustrations of children confined indoors, pupils at Hutton Rudby from reception upwards seem happy to continue with maths or reading tasks or to play quietly with construction toys. Year 6 teacher Dale Robinson puts this down to the individual plans the school draws up for each pupil. "A few of us here are putting in an 80-hour week," he says. "But if work is planned at a level that suits each child, they will enjoy it."

The pupils seem to agree. Asked what he likes best about school, Daniel, from Year 5, replies: "Doing long multiplication sums." Sally in Year 6 says her favourites are maths and writing stories in English. But the school undoubtedly benefits from its pupils' social background. Professor Peter Tymms, of Durham university's school of education, estimates that 70 per cent of the variation in national results can be explained by the nature of a school's intake. Hutton Rudby is a village tucked into gently rolling countryside as the North Yorkshire moors flatten out towards Middlesbrough. Although it still serves the traditional farming community, it is also home to a relatively large number of doctors and lawyers, as well as professionals working in the nearby chemical industry. Parental support is strong and expectations are high. Houses in the village are expensive.

Jane Armitage, a governor with two children in the school, is a solicitor. She is used to being stopped in the street by parents desperate to know if any houses are coming onto the market. Surprisingly, the school, with 175 on roll, still has places to fill, partly because it is hard to get planning permission for new houses in the village, and partly because Hutton Rudby is flanked by other good primary schools. Yarm county primary, a large "beacon" school a few miles to the west, tops the Stockton-on-Tees league table and is only ever a few points short of full marks. Stokesley primary, which serves a market town four miles to the east, is a successful, oversubscribed primary of more than 400 pupils. Of the 57 children assessed in 1999, 69 per cent passed in English, 83 per cent in maths.

Nevertheless Nigel Snow, Stokesley's headteacher, is only too aware of the danger of having one of the highest-achieving schools in England on his doorstep. He has had to work hard in recent years, sending out personal invitations to all of the town's parents to visit the school.

Because the school has a big roll and draws children from a nearby traveller site, Mr Snow says it can never realistically hope to gain 100 per cent. Some reception children can read, recognise and write numbers and letters and listen to stories, while others have never had stories read to them and have no letter recognition. "I don't think they have many children like that down the road," Mr Snow says. "Our value-added, in that respect, is much greater." Parents must be made to see that a school is bigger than the sum of its league table score.

In London, the league table effect is much more apparent. Schools at the top face the pressure of expectation, but those in their shadow face even greater difficulties. Our Lady of Victories is tucked away on the corner of a salubrious street off Upper Richmond Road in Putney. Recently restored with a smart new annexe and hall, the school has 195 on roll and is vastly oversubscribed. This year 90 application forms have gone out for 28 places.

The school is cheerful but formal and the emphasis is on the three Rs, although music and competitive sport are a big part of school life. Mrs Ryall employs a special needs teacher and a music specialist three days a week, for which she does without a school caretaker; if necessary, she clears the drains herself. Funding for teaching staff is the priority.

All the children learn French from reception onwards and enjoy one-to-one reading right through to age 11. They are tested regularly and the discipline structure is "tight". "We try to maintain a calm working atmosphere," Mrs Ryall says. "We are a very neat school, some would say clinical. We make it clear to parents that right from reception children are expected to sit on their bottoms writing and doing number work. Inspectors might frown on it but we get the results."

Jo Wanless, who teaches Year 6, says children appreciate and benefit from the quiet, orderly atmosphere. Those moving into the area also appreciate it. Mrs Ryall hears on the grapevine that houses near the school are highly sought-after. Middle-class parents favour Our Lady's where once they favoured the independent preparatory sector, especially as many boys go on to the Oratory and girls to the Sacred Heart, Hammersmith, both of which are attended by the Prime Minister's children.

Although Our Lady's serves the large parish of St Simon's, the children of practising Catholics who live near the school have priority. For the present the school maintains a social mix, but this is changing as the number of applications for places grows rapidly and houses near the school continue to rise in price. Mrs Ryall says: "We don't want to be known as a middle-class school but properties nearby are expensive, so people in council houses at the other end of the parish feel pushed out."

According to Dee Russell, headteacher of St Joseph's, another Roman Catholic primary only 20 minutes' walk away down Putney Bridge Road, league tables create enclaves. She says she now has more children in her school with special needs and English as a second language than comparable schools and certainly more than she did before league tables started.

Although Ofsted has praised St Joseph's as a good school with outstanding features, white professionals in the area tend to head on to Our Lady of Victories. St Joseph's is a multicultural school, drawing children mainly from local authority housing estates. It succeeds in moving children on two levels from their baseline at both key stages: last year 97 per cent of its children achieved level 2 at key stage 1, and over the past three years it has raised its aggregate percentage score for the key stage 2 test from 132 per cent to 211 per cent. But only those 11-year-olds from St Joseph's who achieve level 6 (one or two a year) gain places at the Oratory, according to Miss Russell.

Nevertheless, St Joseph's places a strong emphasis on citizenship, and celebrates its multiculturalism through an intense programme that enriches the curriculum. It has won two Investors in People awards and a European Eco Schools award for its environment education, which encompassed landscaping the school grounds and energy-saving measures. Every classroom has its own appointed "ecowarriors".

"This is a very lively, happy place," says Miss Russell. "Ofsted said it was wonderful to come into a school where the children have panache. Those were the words they used. I would like all parents in the area to realise that we are a good school. The white middle classes don't realise they are missing out."

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