Turnaround gains may be sacrificed

24th January 1997 at 00:00
At least half the children at Jane Loder's Buckinghamshire middle school have special needs. Unemployment, crime and vandalism are everyday features of many of their parents' lives and violence is often the language used at home.

Ashmead County Combined School is in the Walton Court estate in Aylesbury - an estate largely made up of council housing, planned with no real notion of community, with a church in the middle of a roundabout.

Seven children out of a class of 29 are disruptive pupils. Twelve in another similar-sized group have individual education plans. Yet the atmosphere in the 420-pupil school is calm.

This has not happened by accident. The arrival two years ago of Mrs Loder from Wells in Somerset - a world away from the Walton Court estate - has seen a transformation at the school. Reading ages have risen by as much as three years.

But Mrs Loder's success at turning the school round is now under threat because of potential budget cuts of more than Pounds 50,000 from April.

Ashmead, which has reserves of just Pounds 18,000, is facing the loss of four or five teachers.

Its achievements hinge on the small classes created during the past two years where numbers have been cut from 37 to 27.

A behaviour policy which emphasises the good things that children do, sets them clear boundaries and which is signed by both pupils and their parents has also helped.

But it is the smaller classes made possible because governors decided to fund three extra teachers which have been the most significant change.

"Our children need space," said Mrs Loder. "They bring a lot of their outside background into school. Some of them are violent and aggressive and their first reaction to a problem would be to use their fists."

Classes of 37 were breeding grounds for conflicts among the children who very often had low expectations of what they could achieve, she said.

Many pupils, she explained, had arrived at Ashmead attaining levels well below what might be expected nationally but in the changed atmosphere in the school their reading ages have improved by between four months and three years.

The message seems to have got through to their families too. So many parents wanted to attend last term's Christmas concert that some had to be turned away because of fire regulations.

The school site is clean and free of graffiti, coats are "hung not flung", pupils wipe their feet before going into the carpeted classrooms and disruption is contained.

Ashmead now wants time to consolidate its achievements. This year, however, it had to get rid of its full-time caretaker and full-time secretary. Its non-teaching deputy, David Jenkins, has gone back to the classroom three days a week to help balance the books.

It has lost two teachers, the only books it has bought are for maths and English and it has spent no money on information technology or redecoration in order to keep its classes small.

"The prospect of these children losing the gains they have made in the last two years is tragic," said Mrs Loder. "Returning to the situation of where class sizes were two years ago is quite monstrous."

Buckinghamshire - the last Tory-controlled education authority - will set its budget next month. It is unclear yet whether councillors will be prepared to spend up to its capping limit. Roger Priest, Ashmead's chairman of governors, said: "You have to question the sincerity of councillors who masquerade as serving the best interests of children if they arenot prepared to put maximum funding into education."

The governors are opposed to opting out in principle, but are considering whether the school would receive more money under grant-maintained status.

"We are not prepared to preside over a deterioration in standards, " said Mr Priest. "Throughout the country governors are being put into the situation of making cuts against their conscience and it has got to stop."

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