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Village of the crammed

Titchmarsh primary school is thriving - and it is a job to fit everybody in. Nicholas Pykereports

Travellinginto the village of Titchmarsh, with its 17th-century cottages and its famous 15th-century church, it is easy to forget that Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby are just down the road. Certainly, eastern Northamptonshire, which looks out towards the fens, has its share of affluence and deprivation.

This is a very different educational landscape too. Here, the children still attend middle schools - a situation which the county has no desire to alter - before they move on to the successful Prince William school in Oundle.

If 17th-century poet laureate John Dryden returned, he would probably still recognise the thatched houses in the village where he grew up. But the soul of the place is very different now. There are not many farming families left in Titchmarsh, or anywhere else in the picturesque agricultural regions of the county. The pale stone cottages are now more likely to be occupied by professionals who commute to Northampton, Peterborough, or even London and Birmingham, than the labourers they were built for. There are pockets of rural poverty in the county, but Titchmarsh is not one of them. The last remaining shop in the village is now closed, leaving the Victorian primary school and the church next door as the only islands of continuity in a sea of social change.

Once a week, the children go to St Mary the Virgin church around the corner. And every spring the school maintains a local tradition by selecting aMay king and queen to walk around the village.

Things are thriving here. Numbers have grown from 50 to 80 in the two and a half years since Margaret Cleaver took over as headteacher - a success which brings its own pressures. Indeed, Titchmarsh Church of England primary school is now so short of space that the children have their morning assembly in a temporary building before going back into the old stone buildings for their lessons. Two year groups even have to share the same classroom, albeit a large one. With pupil numbers increasing, Mrs Cleaver has been able to bring in extra staff and now has four full-time teachers and two part-timers. She still teaches two days a week, and faces a problem if anyone is off sick. The immense burden of form-filling and record keeping is particularly onerous for a headteacher in a village school. On the plus side, the school has a strong sense of community.

"The children have got an extremely dedicated staff," says Ms Cleaver. "They're very supportive to me. If we do have illness and absence, they're prepared to help out in any way they can. The parents are committed to the school, turning their hands to anything we ask of them - from fund-raising to helping with our activity days."

Titchmarsh has even solved the problem of a shortage of male teachers. This dearth of men in the classroom is a concern for the local authority and its director of education, Brenda Bignold. Titchmarsh drafted in teacher Darren Shaw, who specialises in PE and ICT.

Ms Cleaver says: "It's something that the parents were very pleased about. It's important in primary schools - it brings a different dimension and a good role model."

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