Linda Howlett, Head Teacher at Nunney First School, invited Visit Nunney to come and see the progress made at the school since the last Ofsted report.
Nunney had to fight long and hard to get a proper school, as set out in Visit Nunney’s 2014 exhibition Nunney Scarecrows – Child Labour and Education in 19th Century Nunney.
Nunney First School was founded in 1896 and is a co-educational day school for pupils aged 4 to 9. Pupils are admitted from Nunney and the surrounding villages and hamlets, including Trudoxhill, Marston, Cloford, Holwell and Tytherington, as well as from Frome.
There are two classes, with 49 pupils in total. Nunney First School has at least one school-funded teaching assistant per class which enables it to achieve a pupil-to-staff ratio of 10-1.
When we arrive at the school, a meeting of the school’s governors has just ended.
“The school has the support of a lot of volunteers,” governor Hilary Allom explains to us in the school’s admin building, added in 2005. “These days school governors have real responsibility and there is far more work involved in being a school governor now.”
“We are expected to really keep up with legislation and regulations. It’s quite hard work, but very rewarding.”
“The system for funding has changed. We used to have three classes and now we have two,” she explains. “In the past it was based on units of 30 children, but now funding is based per child.”
“That works in our favour, because it means that we still have two classes with a fulltime teacher and a teaching assistant each.”
“Yes, we have fewer pupils than in previous years, but in some cases parents could no longer afford the fuel to drive their children to school; we used to get children from a wide area around Nunney and we still do, but there are lots of reasons why some opt for other schools – for example because some parents prefer a Church of England school.”
The school undoubtedly has a problem that is quite unique to the Frome area. Linda explains, “Nunney First School is part of a cluster of schools in the Frome area that still use the 3-tier system. That means that children are here until the age of 9, then have to move to a middle school for four years before going on to secondary education.”
Nunney First School educates children up to the age of 9, then they move to a middle school such as Oakfield in Frome until the age of 13. After that, they go to an upper school, Frome College.
“This system was implemented by Somerset County Council forty years ago and was quite common elsewhere in the UK at the time. Now, however, only Frome, Cheddar and Minehead still use a 3-tier system. Everywhere else children stay in the key stage 2 until the age of 11 before moving on to Secondary school.”
“Some parents don’t like the idea of their children having to change school twice within four years,” Linda points out. “When pupils sometimes leave at age 9 to go to Upton Noble, for example, often their younger siblings go with them so it’s just one car ride rather than two. Nowadays parents can make those choices; they have more parental choice.”
In total there are 17 schools in the area working under the umbrella of Frome College. Linda says that this group has a good reputation for working well as a partnership.
“We work very closely with Mells and Leigh on Mendip,” Linda says. “It’s very much a jigsaw, with each contributing to the overall picture in terms of education.”
Since she brought up the topic of Ofsted reports, we ask her about her own most recent inspection. Nunney First School’s latest Ofsted inspection was carried out on 9 May 2013 and published on 7 June.
Linda had taken over as Head Teacher just six months earlier at the time. Although the report credited her and the school governors for showing real promise in further improving standards at the school, it concluded that Linda would need more time to implement changes.
“Improvement needed” was the verdict – which must have been a blow for everyone involved.
“Yes, it was,” Linda admits. “It was very disappointing. Inspections are not announced in advance.”
“That’s not an excuse,” she adds. “There’s no way of knowing when an inspector calls. So there we are and we just deal with it. But any Ofsted inspection is a snapshot, often based on how basic skills like reading, writing and maths are taught.”
“It was a real shock that the report required improvements in governance at the school, although there was nothing negative about the school’s leadership and management,” she notes.
New inspection overdue
“It is all based on data. When you read the report, it clearly says that we were already – even two years ago – implementing major improvements, but that it was too early to demonstrate their impact.”
“We were pleased that the inspector found that health and wellbeing were good, because the health and wellbeing of pupils have always been vitally important to everyone involved at the school.”
All schools have a right to ask to be inspected again. Linda and her team were keen to show the inspector that their hard work was already starting to pay off. The inspector has not been back, however, and a new inspection is now well overdue.
“We are confident that the improvements we had already started before the inspection are now in place and have made an impact,” Linda says. “At the time we estimated that we had six months of hard work to do to get the school back to ‘good’.”
“We are ready for the next Ofsted inspection – as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it looks as if Ofsted has been concentrating on improving standards in southeast England recently. They have certainly not been back yet, despite our repeated requests.”
Linda Howlett certainly gives the impression that she is keen to tackle any potential problems head-on.
“We still have some problems with writing,” she explains. “Our focus is to work hard on phonics knowledge. We are also using what we call ‘I can’ statements, which are showing promising results.”
“Nunney First School does well with maths. We are also focusing on improving reading skills with the Rainbow Reading scheme. Children are encouraged to read to adults at home. If they do, they earn rainbow-coloured bookmarks. That is proving to be a real incentive.”
“Yes,” she says. “I believe very strongly that schools and parents should work closely together to get the best results for children.”
“Most parents understand that parents have a clear responsibility in teaching them right and wrong, in reading to them and helping children with their homework – such as it is at this age. It’s a partnership that’s very important.”
“We get very good results by encouraging children to become investigators. At Nunney First School we have French lessons, history days (how many other schools have a real castle on their doorstep?), pottery and lots of other activities. Children love it.”
“And of course we have Mucky Pups, where local volunteers help children grow fruit and vegetables in and around our own polytunnel. Very unusually, the Royal Horticultural Society has awarded Mucky Pups school gardening level 5. We’re very proud of that.”
Ever since the Government has made it compulsory for schools to provide hot meals to children under the age of 7, Nunney First School has worked with the Castle Kitchen café in Nunney. Since the school’s own kitchen facilities were not big enough, the café provides wholesome hot meals on a daily basis.
In a bit of a public relations victory for Linda, the BBC’s flagship news programme for the West of England Points West gave the meals programme at Nunney First School extensive coverage.
As Linda explains, “There are plans to start using fruit and vegetables from our own polytunnel for school meals in the near future.”
How does Linda feel about the prospect of Barratt Homes building up to 100 new houses in Nunney, and the possible financial contribution they might make to the school?
She laughs. “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” she says. “For a start, even if it does go ahead Barratt Homes has already said they would only make a contribution if the school went over its maximum capacity as a result of new families moving in to Nunney.”
“They put the number of pupils above which they would consider contributing at 90. Former school governor John Webb wrote to them and to Mendip District Council to explain that in real terms our maximum capacity is 75 children for a number of reasons.”
“We currently have 49 pupils. Even if they build 100 houses, the official calculation by Barratt Homes – based on national standards – is that this would only add around 18 extra children of an age relevant to our school. That is, assuming their parents would all decide to send them here.”
“So I am under absolutely no illusion whether any new housing in Nunney would bring us pots of gold. It won’t. It’s as simple as that. We would obviously welcome more pupils and our government grant per child will mean a small increase in our funding.”
Linda shows us round the spacious grounds and various buildings that make up Nunney Pre-School and Nunney First School. “The two are quite separate,” she emphasises, “Although we do work together very closely.”
We are surprised at the widespread use of multimedia technology in every class room.
“Yes, children love the interactive learning that this equipment is enabling us to provide,” Linda says. “We use interactive screens and laptops with excellent results and also plan to introduce iPads as an integral part of learning.”
“But our real focus is on providing a consistent quality of learning. All children in class must make progress. So every class has one fulltime teacher, one teaching assistant and one volunteer.”
“Children at Nunney schools are taught in small groups. That’s very important, because it enables us to provide children with individual support in learning. I have shown a lot of parents round the school recently, and they often remark that it’s like private tuition without the fees.”
As well as a new committee and a new website (nunneyfirstschool.co.uk), Linda has embarked on a public relations campaign to commute the improvements made at the school.
“There are lots of positives,” she says. “We have appointed a data analyst who is helping us implement recommendations made by Ofsted. We are also joining forces with other schools in the Frome catchment area.”
“But most importantly, the whole school is involved in a massive joint effort to ensure that education standards at the school are excellent. We have a terrific team, including staff, governors and other volunteers. I am confident that our next Ofsted inspection – when it finally comes – will show that we are making real progress.”