Stars and stickers help reverse failure

14th November 1997 at 00:00
The head of a school founded by Chaucer's grand-daughter has used modern techniques to rescue it from closure, reports Clare Dean.

In a picture-postcard Oxfordshire village which was once a country retreat for Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, headteacher Wendy Jacobs has written her own place in the history books. She is the first female head of the village school in more than 500 years and has turned it around from a failing primary, almost certainly ensuring it a place in the 21st century.

Eighteen months ago, when she took over Ewelme Church of England primary - the oldest school in Britain that has continually occupied its original buildings - pupil numbers were 34 and falling, threatening closure.

Today there are 57 four to 11-year-olds in the school, founded in 1437 by Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk and grand-daughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

A report by the Office for Standards in Education identifies it as a "rapidly improving school" and highlights the "outstanding" leadership of Mrs Jacobs.

It says that before she took over, the school was "failing to provide an acceptable quality of education for the pupils". Attainment was well below average, there were poor attitudes among pupils, and science was not even taught.

The OFSTED team, led by David Curtis, now says that 50 per cent of teaching is good, 15 per cent very good and the remaining 35 per cent always satisfactory.

Able children achieve "well above average standards" in English, in most lessons pupils work hard and they enjoy what they are doing. Behaviour is good.

"Parents are delighted with the way in which the school's turned round their children's attitudes to school and learning, especially those with children who are in key stage 2." But inspectors did find shortcomings in record-keeping, formal assessment procedures, infant history and geography, and design technology in the juniors.

For Mrs Jacobs, though, the priority when she took on the school was to improve the quality of what was on offer and to raise children's self-esteem and confidence.

Pupils were given new exercise books, different maths and reading schemes were introduced, and today the buzz of children rings throughout the building, with its leaded windows and twisting staircases. Children wear "well-done" stickers and stars on their newly-introduced uniforms. There are weekly awards. Parents who previously had chosen not to send their children to Ewelme are doing so.

"Once you get a child's self-esteem and confidence right and the child believes they can do it, they are much more likely to achieve," Mrs Jacobs said.

The village of Ewelme is home to London and Oxford commuters, farming communities and a small council estate. The three-class school is part of a mediaeval complex which includes a church and cloistered almshouses.

It was built to educate the boys who worked on the Suffolks' estates. Pupils also slept there and went to church three times a day. Alice Chaucer, one of the richest women of her time, is buried in the church, while Ewelme Manor, once a palace owned by her family, was a royal retreat. Although it is a local authority school, the buildings are owned by the Ewelme Trust which supports the school financially.

Mrs Jacobs is a teaching head and there are two other full-time teachers, and one part-time.

Her daughter Connie, five, is at the school and two-year-old Thea will join her. "I am a real believer in village schools," said Mrs Jacobs. "And this is the way I justify being a working mum. I wanted to teach my own childen in my own school."

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