Where a red ceiling is the only barrier

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Amid the council estates of Bury, a school has gained impressive levels in national tests. Nicolas Barnard investigates

Headteacher Bernard Lawton would like to help The TES, he really would. But he doesn't think he can. "There's nothing unique about what we do," he says. " It's not different or special. But we apply it properly and thoroughly. "

Surrounded by council estates where fading "Britain is Booming" posters have a slightly mocking air, East Ward Primary School in Bury could claim to be among the best in the country.

If it is a model of anything, it is one of good organisation and teamwork. The results that put the school at the top of the league table have not been achieved through special programmes, curriculum changes or classroom organisation, but by getting the basics right. That means an emphasis on ethos, creating an environment where children are keen to learn and take a pride in what they do.

The raw results for last summer's key stage 2 tests look good enough. Some 79 per cent of its 10- to 11-year-olds scored level 4 or above in English; 82 per cent did so in maths; 92 per cent in science.

Those figures are a lot better than the other statistics for its catchment area - unemployment 12 per cent, lone parents 24 per cent, more than half of all families without a car, 45 per cent renting their homes. One in five children at East Ward is on the special needs register; two in five get free school meals.

What makes the results even more impressive is a comparison with the scores at key stage 1 by the same children four years previously. Against a national picture that saw fewer children attain the target level at 11 than at 7, East Ward's boys and girls improved in all subjects. In l992, only 64 per cent reached level 2 in English, 31 per cent in maths, and 86 per cent in science. That, by any criteria, is value added.

It is an improvement gained in unpromising circumstances. The school is split between two sites, in pre-Second World War buildings. A shortage of funds means one class is a mixture of eight and nine-year-olds and a teacher will be lost next year.

Despite that, Mr Lawton and his staff have tried to create a lively, bright and well-ordered school. One by one, rooms are being redecorated, outdated furniture replaced. One of Mr Lawton's biggest concerns - he mentions it time and again - is a depressing red ceiling in one classroom which he hasn't yet had the resources to repaint.

"If we expect the children to work in an environment that's falling apart, we can't expect the best of them," he says. That goes for staff too. The first thing he did when appointed in 1992 was spend the summer holiday stripping and redecorating the storeroom that passed for a secretary's office.

There is an ethos of praise taken to its conclusion. "We really look for the good things we can praise. We have high expectations of behaviour and work rate, but we make sure children's work is valued. It's displayed in class and around the school. Particular pieces of work are actually framed."

The entrance hall features a best work display and books of photographs of children at work on different topics. A wall chart shows the latest tally of house points - East Ward has four houses - with points for good work, a weeklytrophy and a term award.

The school has also thrown itself into team sports with gusto. Rugby has proved hugely popular for a non-rugby playing town. Most games are played by mixed teams, with as many inter-school matches arranged as possible. It giveschildren a sense of pride in the school and a sense of self-esteem.

Organisation and detail are crucial. One of the second things Mr Lawton did when he arrived was to bring all the school's teaching resources together. Instead of each class having a couple of, say, metre sticks, he collected them all together, so that when teachers needed them, every child in the class could have one.

He is particularly proud of the school's Risograph machine, which prints high quality worksheets - one more little detail that encourages children to take pride in their work. He'd like his staff to save money by producing two years' worth of worksheets at one go, but he knows that by next year they will have subtly altered their lessons as they assess what works. East Ward has a high level of experienced staff, plus some talented newcomers, and all have been on development courses in the past year.

Pupils are tested as they finish each topic, to find out areas where they are not progressing - and the practice doesn't hurt when it comes to taking the national tests.

Teachers are not afraid to drill pupils either. A typical end to a morning's classes could be counting backwards and forwards in fives or sevens. Pupils are set lists of words to learn each week.

Homework is light, but children are expected to read at home and parents are expected to listen to them. The home-school link is important - parents are encouraged to talk to their children about their lessons and reinforce the message that what they do at school matters.

East Ward benefits from a close relationship with its local authority. Bury Metropolitan Borough is a small council but, despite cash constraints, has invested heavily in detailed statistical analysis of test results. Mr Lawton says that has proved vital to raising standards.

Bury helped track the results of those 26 children who took both key stage 1 and 2 tests at the school. As the head says, teachers have always assessed children, if only mentally. But they now have a much more sophisticated and finely-tuned tool to help them.

In the meantime, Mr Lawton is still worrying about that red ceiling. "We'll definitely tackle it this year..."

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