The Bickerstaffe Record
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Story of a school (part 1)

04.26.09 | Comment?

Introduction

The Conservatives have announced ‘a new generation of primary academies’, with legislation introduced ‘within weeks’ if they came into government. 

‘Under the plans’, goes the Conservative website press release, ‘primary schools which have demonstrated excellent performance and leadership will be given academy freedoms over their curriculum, budget, staff and school hours.’

There’s no substance to the announcement, which is little more than a quick soundbite.  But reading between the lines, what may be being planned looks very stupid indeed, in that it’s based on:

a) the demolition of the ‘straw man’ of state education, where the Tories would have us all believe that primary schools are run by a central education body with a rod of iron, and schools have no flexibility whatsoever in how they use their budget or plan the education they deliver – something which is quite simply untrue.

b) what looks likes  a plan to divide ‘local communities’ against each other as parents are driven, often agains their better nature, to see education as simply another consumer choice, as if they were choosing which supermarket to go to, and where they are actively disempowered by the rhetoric of choice.

I could go straight on and critique the announcement for the tosh that it is, but as a change, and because as yet there is really no substance to critique, I’m going to leave that for now, and tell you the story of my own school. 

This is a good news story, the type of which would, I will contend, never be repeated if the Conservatives did what they have announced they will do.  For it concerns parents not as consumers but as citizens;  it concerns teachers not as a group to be distrusted and constantly whipped into line through competition, but as people who care about the important job they do;  it concerns a school not simply as a sausage factory for results, but as a place of learning and caring at the heart of a community proud to have it at its heart.

The story of my school

In March 2009, the Chair of Governors of Bickerstaffe C of E Primary school gave me a call to tell me the result of the Ofsted inspection, at that point still under press embargo till the report was officially released by Ofsted.  I spoke to him for a few minutes, put the phone down, sat back in my chair, and punched the air in pride and delight.

The Ofsted report is here in all its glory. 

Later that evening, I wrote this email to a number of people who had been involved as governors in recent years, including our previous vicar, now living in Southport:

‘I suddenly feel like a chapter’s closed – job done – even though there’s so much more than can and will be done. Every one of us who stood up to counted can be proud.’

 

Back in 2000, when I first became involved at the school as an LEA governor, all was not well. 

I didn’t have school-aged children then, had had no real contact with the school, having only come to live in Bickerstaffe a couple of years previously, and went along to my first meeting as a willing person, but with no preconceptions.

At around the same time, I soon discovered, concerned parents had been calling in the Local Education Authority, looking for answers as to what the hell was going on.  The headteacher was off longterm sick, we had an ‘associate head’ in a couple of days a week, and parents were starting to remove their children from the school.

It was not an easy couple of years to be a governor.  As a newcomer to the area, AND as a Labour LEA governor in what was then regarded as a ‘safe’ Tory area, I think it’s safe to say I had to prove my worth.   I can add and subtract, and fairly quickly became internal auditor of the school accounts, and then Chair of Finance – I can’t remember when exactly.

There was a bloodless coup at a Governors’ meeting, where a couple of new people, including the then vicar, then took over the Chair and Vice Chairmanship. From memory, it was the headteacher’s second meeting back from sick. The LEA secretary at the meeting was so nervous I could see her hands shaking as, for the first time in her career, she handed out the ballot slips.  It was not a tremendously pleasant atmosphere, as what needed to be done was done.

One of the longstanding governors stuck around for another couple of meetings, then resigned.  Another one stuck around, and to her/his enormous credit got on with supporting what we were trying to do as a group.  

What we were trying to do was save the village school.   The roll was dropping alarmingly quickly; there wasn’t money to invest in equipment, and at times it felt like the LEA had given up on a small school miles away from anywhere.

By 2002 or so we’d stabilised.  There’d been a turnover of staff, and the team was a happy and united one. We’d opened an after school club, so that working parents didn’t need to be forced into town.  That was a struggle with small numbers, but we made it work. 

But the roll had fallen to around 50, as the tarnished reputation emanating from the previous years lived on, in spite of the fact that we were well on the mend.

The LEA adviser came to see us, and to patronise us.  She told us there was really no chance of reversing the decline in a rural area like this and that we’d have to go from three to two classes.  

We knew that this would be the end, that whatever she might say about how it’s possible to work with large age ranges like that, parents would think otherwise and would pull their children out. 

We knew the roll would be 20-25 in no time and that then closure would loom.  We also knew that that would be the loss of the heart of Bickerstaffe.

So we said no to the LEA adviser. 

We said we heard what she’d said, but we disagreed, and that we planned to do things differently.  In September 2004, I stayed up all night to write a detailed business recovery plan, which included a deficit budget for two years while we built the roll up sufficiently to be able to pay it back (funding is more or less on a per capita basis). 

I’m not sure the LEA ever read the business recovery plan in its entirery; certainly no formal comment was ever made on it.  But the LEA said it was our school, we were the governors and we should, in the end, govern as we saw fit.  We were allowed to keep three classes.

By March 2009 we had around 70 children on roll.  At current levels of recruitment we may be at around 85-90 in a couple of years. 

We have four classes, not two, and five full-time teachers including the headteacher.  We never did go into the budget deficit I’d projected (very conservatively) in 2004.  

We’ve got thriving pre-school education on the school site, which despite current limited space also got great Ofsted report, with plans to open a full day nursery this year in a new build under the charitable company set up alongside the school. 

We’ve got loads of new spanking ICT equipment and loads of new facilities and equipment.

We are a state of the art school, partly housed in a building dating from 1844. 

Parents think the school is great, and according to Ofsted:

‘This is a good and improving school. Personal development is outstanding. Strong links with the church support pupils’ excellent spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

‘Pupils enjoy coming to school and join in enthusiastically with the wide range of activities on offer. Pupils have a very good understanding of the importance of diet and vigorous exercise in living a healthy lifestyle. They feel safe because everyone gets on well with each other. They make an excellent contribution to the community, for example contributing an extra 10p for their lunch to support the World Food programme. Sound basic skills and the opportunities to work with each other prepare pupils well for the future. Behaviour is excellent……’   

….and on and on it goes in this vein, with particular praise for our outstanding excellence in Early Years provision.

None of the people – governors or staff – had to make this happen. 

The governors could have taken the easy course of action, and taken their kids of to other schools as well. 

The headteacher, who retired happily in 2005, could have retired earlier.  Our brilliant new head need not have taken the job, need not have continued driving the improvements that have brought this Ofsted report.  Our great team of staff need not travel as far as some of them do to get to work.

But we did it, and Bickerstaffe is a more community-sprited place than it was 10 years ago – not all because of the school, but not in spite of it. 

And, as I said in my email to the ones I’ve been closest to since those early difficult times, we can be proud.

Conlusion to part 1

Would this success story have happened in a primary education culture – the one now proposed by the Conservatives – where parents are not asked to give a damn about the wider picture, notasked to care about their village, or their bit of town, but expected simply to ‘consume’ education on behalf of their children rather than be part of it?

No, I don’t think it would have happened, and in part 2 I’ll go into a painful level of detail as to why not.

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