Pupils learn to have fun

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Making lessons more creative has transformed a once-troubled primary, writes Martin Whittaker

Name: Allhallows primary school, Medway School type: community infant and junior school Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 9 per cent Results: In 2004, 73 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 64 per cent in maths and 64 per cent in science

Allhallows primary school has had more than its share of troubles. The school is perched on windswept fields overlooking the Medway and the Thames estuaries, a site scheduled to become a runway until a year ago when the Government dropped its plans for a new airport. The school was judged to have serious weaknesses by the Office for Standards in Education in 2001. A year later the headteacher and entire teaching staff resigned over plans to federate Allhallows with a neighbouring school, plans that have since been shelved.

Since then this school has been undergoing a remarkable transformation, thanks to the energy and vision of its current head Belinda Beckhelling and her staff. On re-inspection in May 2003, Ofsted commented on how "she has turned around pupils' disaffected attitudes, so that the vast majority are ready and eager to learn". And the school has done it by putting fun into the curriculum.

"When I first came, the children were apathetic about learning," says Mrs Beckhelling. "They saw it as something that just happened to them, and they didn't feel they had a role in it. We needed to turn that around and make education exciting."

Allhallows primary is a small rural infant and junior school 10 miles north of Rochester on the Hoo Peninsula. It has 116 pupils on roll - 9 per cent are eligible for free school meals - and the school has a high proportion of children with special educational needs in certain year groups.

Geographical remoteness has been one of the school's biggest handicaps, hampering teacher recruitment. Its descent into serious weaknesses was attributed to its reliance on a stream of supply teachers.

Mrs Beckhelling says that when she arrived in September 2002 following the staff's mass resignation, she at least had the benefit of starting with a clean sheet. Apart from one senior teacher, her new staff consisted of one newly qualified teacher, and two unqualified teachers from overseas. But what they lacked in qualifications and experience, the staff made up for in youth and enthusiasm.

Her first priority was to raise standards at key stage 2. This is still "work in progress", though English and maths Sats results have improved.

Last year 73 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English, 64 per cent in maths and 64 per cent in science.

The area's remoteness has also held back the children. "In a village school that's performing well, we should be getting 80 or 90 per cent gaining level 4 or above," says Mrs Beckhelling.

"But what we find is that our children lack basic general knowledge about the world. A lot of children here tend to stay in the village and think that life revolves around it. We have to take them out into the world outside."

The school now arranges as many visits as it can, including trips to London and residential visits to the Malvern Hills. Year 6 pupils have visited a mosque and toured the newsroom of the local paper, the Kent Messenger.

New ICT equipment has helped bring in the outside world. Three years ago the school had few computers. Now it has a large computer suite, broadband access and interactive whiteboards.

But the biggest change has been in the curriculum. As a class teacher, Mrs Beckhelling had helped trial Department for Education and Skills'

strategies to improve standards at KS2 with booster classes in literacy and numeracy. She says she found the benefits very short-term, and in some cases pupils were even put off learning. "I thought, children really need to enjoy what they're doing," she says. "If they enjoy what they're doing, they become curious about what they're learning, and they begin to ask those searching questions.

"We needed to make the curriculum child-friendly, building it around what children wanted to learn about."

The DfES had just produced its Excellence and Enjoyment strategy to broaden the curriculum for primary schools. Allhallows took elements of that to make its own creative curriculum by bringing in art, dance, drama and music across all subjects. Examples include relating dance to ICT by getting pupils to think about machines and create dance movements. In geography, children have been asked to think about the lie of the land on the Hoo Peninsula and tie it in with local history.

When the threat of an airport loomed, pupils wrote to Tony Blair to say why they thought it would be wrong to site it in the area, while also looking at how local wildlife would be affected.

The school also started a creative arts week, including workshops for all classes including drama, music and African drumming and circus skills. This was not just intended as a fun week for the children - teachers suggested how they could use these activities to enhance learning.

There are now after-school clubs, including sign language, country dancing, a reporters' club, Spanish and cookery. And the school has consulted pupils on what they think makes a good lesson. Pupils have even joined the head to observe lessons and feed back to their teachers.

Mrs Beckhelling says continuing professional development has been key. "Our job as teachers is no longer to impart our knowledge to the children, for it is all out there for the children to find. Our job is to teach the children where to find it, how to interpret and utilise it and the best way to communicate it. Our job is to foster in children an ability to think, a confidence in themselves and a love for learning that will keep them growing throughout their years."

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