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Raising standards and horizons

Andrew Headley has been to visit the Purbeck School at Wareham

Sixth-formers pose by the ammonite which is the Purbeck school’s symbol

When it opened in 1974 as part of the nationwide shift to comprehensive schools, the Purbeck School combined secondary schools in Wareham, Swanage and Bovington, plus Swanage Grammar School with its long tradition of excellence. There were those, in Swanage in particular, who saw it as something of a shotgun wedding, and it is still possible to find people who resent the fact that there is no provision for secondary education in that town.

For most people in Purbeck, though, the school is an integral and important part of the area’s identity. The nature of that area is itself a challenge, with the two comparatively large towns of Wareham and Swanage, plus a large rural catchment area. It means that the school is constantly encouraging students to lift their eyes above the immediate horizon – as headteacher Richard Holman puts it, ‘to get a sense of their place not only in the local but in the national and global communities.’ The geographical scattering of the students, who almost without exception come through the middle schools at Wareham, Swanage, Bovington and Sandford, creates practical problems of transport; some twenty large coaches a day carry the students back and forth.

On the plus side, the proximity of the Jurassic Coast is a major advantage – the school’s symbol is an ammonite – and chimes well with the school’s status as a specialist science and maths college. Although most schools now have a specialisation, it is not to be sneezed at, bringing in over £100,000 a year. This pays for far better learning resources and the science laboratories at the Purbeck are of a very impressive standard. The funds also enable the school to offer a wider choice of subjects than would otherwise be possible, geology being an appropriate example: it has been available at A level for some time and will shortly be added to the GCSE choices. The specialist status carries its obligations, too, notably to support the four middle schools in science and maths. For example, the money pays for a roving lab technician, who enables the middle schools to provide a wider range of learning experiences than might otherwise be the case.

When specialist colleges were first invented, there were some fears that other subjects might be neglected, but on the whole that has not happened, and certainly not at the Purbeck. There is what Richard Holman calls ‘ a remorseless focus on standards’ by the government, and it is a pressure that he is happy to accept. The school runs an initiative named ‘Going for 5’, whose target is to raise the proportion of GCSE examinees achieving five grades between A* and C (the equivalent of an old O level pass), including English and Maths. At the moment that proportion is about 50%; the figure for students achieving five A*-C grades not necessarily including English or Maths is rather over 60%. The three-year trend is upwards, a fact recognised by the most recent OFSTED inspection in May 2009. On the OFSTED scale of four levels (outstanding, good, satisfactory, inadequate), the Purbeck achieved a rating of ‘good’, as against ‘satisfactory’ in the previous inspection in 2006.

The school benefits from being a specialist science and maths college

Leading the drive for improvement is Richard Holman, who has been headteacher for six years. A historian, he has been a teacher for thirty years, working in London and Milton Keynes before coming to Wareham. He has an impressive rapport with the students and tries to visit every classroom every day: ‘You’ve got to get out and feel the pulse of the school,’ he says. It also means that the students know him, if only by sight, and he is not a remote, austere figure. It helps, too, that he acts as an internal supply teacher when he can, covering classes for absent colleagues. His affection for and rapport with his charges is evident: ‘You can never get bored,’ he told me, ‘because you genuinely don’t know what’s coming up on any one day. However gloomy you may be feeling, you can rely on the fact that by ten o’clock, one of the students will have made you laugh.’ He and his family are part of the local community, living as they do in Wareham.

In the quest to lift the students’ eyes above the immediate horizon, extra-curricular activities play an important part. The school has the inestimable advantage of having the Purbeck Sports Centre on site, and its record in sport is understandably strong. Along with its Healthy Schools status, this has the potential to benefit every pupil, not just the sports stars. More ambitiously, a school party goes every other summer to Africa for six weeks. Mostly consisting of years 11 and 12, who raise the money to pay for it themselves, the expedition combines adventure with community service. Extra-curricular activities are also integral to the school’s thriving ‘gifted and talented’ programme, which enables brighter children to learn Latin, for example.

Headteacher Richard Holman tries to visit every classroom every day

The OFSTED report praised the school for forming partnerships outside its boundaries. A quite new example is the partnership with Lytchett Minster School and Thomas Hardye in Dorchester to enable students to qualify at Kingston Maurward for the new qualification in practical skills, known as the Diploma. And the Purbeck has a formal federation with Bovington Middle School, following the latter’s difficulties a couple of years ago, which means taking a close interest in its governance and day-to-day running.

Although a school is primarily about learning, it has a responsibility for caring for the whole child. In this area (now known as ‘safeguarding’, the new jargon for pastoral care), OFSTED gave the Purbeck an ‘outstanding’ grade. The system of tutor groups and of heads of year means that problems should be identified quickly, a youth worker from the youth club next to the sports centre is in the school all day, there is a full-time welfare and attendance officer, and a doctor, nurse or health visitor is available at lunchtime every day to discuss any medical problems in confidence. An on-site unit helps children who are, perhaps, disenchanted, chronically disorganised or returning after a spell away with illness. There is also a well-developed ‘buddy’ system whereby each tutor group has a sixth-former attached to it, available to mentor the younger children.

The sixth form itself is a separate entity within the school, enjoying its own common room and freedom from having to wear uniform. More than 50% of year 11s go on into the sixth form and of those, 70% go on to university, with an average of one or two a year to Oxbridge.

So is everything in the garden lovely? Not quite; for some time the Purbeck has had a poorer than average record on absenteeism and in conjunction with other agencies, strenuous efforts are under way to put this right. A tougher line is being taken with parents of absentees, and three legal cases are under way at the moment.

Having a fully equipped sports centre on site is very good for the school

A challenge and an opportunity is the likely disappearance of the four middle schools in 2012, with the Purbeck taking children at 11 instead of 13 as at present. This will take the number of pupils up from 1150 to 1450, about the size of the school when it first opened. The opportunity will be for a major re-build, adapting the facilities to how children learn now, which is very different from how it was 35 years ago. Richard Holman hopes that the facilities for the sixth form can also be improved and is excited by the whole prospect. At the same time, he is sympathetic to those with misgivings about the change: ‘I don’t believe that one system is intrinsically better or worse than another, and I understand the community’s concerns, but there is no escaping the fact that the middle school system is expensive, and difficult to justify at a time of falling birth-rates.’

He takes a similarly pragmatic view of the suggestion that the school should have a second site in Swanage. ‘I don’t have an objection in principle to a Swanage campus but there are some real practical issues,‘ he says. ‘What do you do about subjects like physics, music or textiles, which in most years support only one class at key stage 4? And there is also the challenge of welding a sense of community and equality within a school based over two campuses nine miles apart.’

A visitor to the school is struck first by the amount of artwork of a high standard on the walls, by the lack of graffiti and by the generally good behaviour of the pupils. One passage in the recent OFSTED report read, ‘The students feel that the school is a very safe place….They enjoy school, particularly when lessons challenge them to think, and to learn by interacting with one another.’ It is a judgement of which the Purbeck School can feel justifiably proud.

The school is unusual in having its own miniature railway, created through the enthusiasm of a former member of staff. It is sometimes used as a teaching aid, as is the pond over which it is running in this photograph.

1 Photography by David Betteridge of

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