‘Open and flexible characters who know themselves’
Andrew Headley has visited Stalbridge Primary School to try and find the secret of its success
Published in July ’16
In a small town like Stalbridge, the primary school plays perhaps an even larger part in the life of the community than a village school does: its catchment area is more compact, and there are more occasions to which it can contribute and more resources of which it can take advantage. Stalbridge Primary School is a good example, benefiting from links to the town’s businesses and other organisations but, in return, contributing in full to local activities and events. The school was founded in 1871 and became a voluntary controlled church school a few years ago; every other Thursday, the entire school walks up to the parish church of St Mary for a service. Today the roll stands at 200, but it is growing steadily and one of the challenges the school faces is the physical one of simply finding enough space for everyone. At the moment there is one class per year, running from Reception (four- to five-year-olds) to Year 6 (ten- to eleven-year-olds). There is also a pre-school on the site, which means that children entering Reception do not find everything new and strange.
Stalbridge forms a ‘cluster’ with the five other primary schools whose pupils mostly go on to Sturminster Newton High School: Hazelbury Bryan, Child Okeford, Okeford Fitzpaine, Shillingstone and William Barnes in Sturminster Newton. The ‘cluster’ principle is of enormous benefit, enabling as it does skills, ideas and sometimes facilities to be shared between the staff of the six primary schools. The High School is also involved, making its facilities available when possible, offering help with particularly academically gifted children, and ensuring that pupils experience a smooth transition from their primary to secondary education.
Asked about longer-term challenges, Headteacher Sarah Lafferty-Jenkins suggests that providing a varied curriculum, where children have opportunities to learn about different cultures can be a challenge. ‘We want our pupils to develop a tolerance for difference and an inquisitive mind for the world around them,’ she says. ‘Another challenge is to make sure that the school is as inclusive as possible, meeting the needs of all children and ensuring that all pupils have the best education that they can.’
This approach fits well with the fundamental ethos of the school, which Sarah Lafferty-Jenkins defines as ‘Achieve the best you can but also be the best person you can. Education must take a holistic approach, teaching life skills as well as the curriculum. This means knowing what learning is, knowing how to ask questions, realising that it is all right to change your mind, accepting that life is sometimes difficult or unfair, being resilient in handling disappointment and moving on, making friends, managing feelings, overcoming personal challenges. We want our pupils to leave here having reached the highest academic standards of which they are capable, but also as open and flexible characters who know themselves.’
The Head goes on, ‘We also want to open doors for them and broaden their horizons, and another element of the school’s philosophy is “Aspire early”.’ Children are given as many opportunities as possible to try activities that they have not experienced before, such as a new sport, as well as developing the things they are good at. They are also encouraged to think about what they might want to do with their lives and Stalbridge is unusual among primary schools in holding a careers fair so that the senior pupils can consider possibilities that perhaps have not occurred to them.
All these things are easier to achieve with pupils who feel happy and safe, and the school takes its pastoral responsibilities very seriously. As well as working closely with parents and outside agencies, two members of staff run a drop-in advice bureau and there are extra support sessions in a dedicated ‘nurture space’ for children with particular problems. There is a ‘worry box’ through which a pupil can express any special concern, and playtimes are watched over by playground leaders; they are not exactly peer mentors or mediators, but they are there to help defuse any trouble that may arise. They are drawn from all through the school, not just from Year 6. In terms of safety, E-safety is taught from the time that a child starts to use computers, and the school works with the Safer Schools Scheme run by Dorset Police.
Stalbridge has a clearly set out ‘behaviour for learning’ strategy. The eight-step process is understood by every child and should ensure that any bad behaviour is identified and dealt with before it becomes a major problem. It is balanced by a system of rewards which includes certificates, the appropriately named ‘Chameleon Award’ for a child who has shown a change of attitude and – the pinnacle of success – an invitation to tea with the Head. Parents are kept informed of their child’s particular achievements by letter, email or text, so sometimes a parent will know that their child has done something good even before he or she arrives home!
One of its facilities of which the school is justly proud is a large swimming pool; all the children learn to swim and the teachers are all lifeguard-trained. Beyond is a large playground and playing field, including an environmental area. These facilities are extensively used by a variety of after-school clubs, run by staff or by specialists brought in from outside, and ranging from cricket to jazzercise. There is also a breakfast club and an after-school club to help working parents.
What of the future? If the government has its way, all schools will become academies and Sarah Lafferty-Jenkins agrees that there would be advantages for the ‘cluster’ of which Stalbridge Primary School is part to move in that direction. On the other hand, she appreciates the connection with the local authority, valuing the services it provides, which would be hard to replace. Whatever its formal status, though, the school will continue to send out children who have learned not only the curriculum, not only study skills, but how to develop into well-rounded individuals.