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EDUCATION: No more measures. Just special

19 September 2014

A once-failing church school in Manchester has been named this year's TES primary of the year. Margaret Holness reports


Excellence: staff and pupils of St Mary's celebrate

Excellence: staff and pupils of St Mary's celebrate

"I LOVE this school," Carol Nevin, the admissions officer at St Mary's C of E Primary School, Moss Side, Manchester, says. She is describing the many features that led St Mary's, once bottom of the primary league tables for north-west England, to its success this summer, when it was named Primary School of the Year in the national TES Schools Awards.

Moreover, the accolade followed achievement in the 2013 TES awards when it was top of the league for Enterprise and Community. "This is an amazing school with an amazing record of achievement in incredibly difficult circumstances," the judges' verdict ran this year.

The "difficult circumstances" referred to by the judges include the fact that, out of 450 pupils, 80 per cent of them receive free school meals, and about the same percentage have a home language other than English. The "amazing record of achievement" means that St Mary's, now 18th highest-achieving school in Manchester, is in the top two per cent nationally for progress in English, and in the top seven per cent for maths.

Bob Palmer, a retired secondary-school teacher who has been chair of governors for 29 years, says that success did not happen overnight. The improvement began, he says, after the school was placed in special measures, more than ten years ago. Under the "can do" approach introduced by the former head teacher, Barrie Chalmers, now retired, and his successor, Jenny McGarry, who had already been a class teacher and deputy head at the school, St Mary's began to flourish.


THE academic improvement takes place against a background of a strong sense of caring for the whole school family - which includes the wider community, Mr Palmer says. Apart from his regular duties as a governor, he volunteers at the school one day a week. "The children and their parents know me by name, and I know them."

The school day at St Mary's begins at 7 a.m., when parents are sent a text to remind them that the "walking bus" - a team that includes Mrs Nevin, classroom assistants, and volunteer parents - will soon be on its way to call for them. Once at school, the children sit down to a free breakfast of bagels, cereals, porridge, and fruit juice, provided by a national charity, The Magic Breakfast*.

What follows is not limited to the classroom, either: the school has a community garden (an oasis, in crowded Moss Side); a vegetable garden, tended daily by a knowledgeable parent; and its own hens, which provide eggs for the children to collect. And, as part of the enterprise programme that won last year's award, small groups of children were given £10 on which they were expected to make a profit. A car-cleaning scheme was popular locally, especially with teachers, while another group set up a stall selling home-made cakes and sweets.


THROUGH the day, the watchwords are encouragement - the "can do" motif - and praise for achievements, great or small. "You hear it on all sides, from teachers, classroom assistants, everyone involved," Mr Palmer says. It has also been the means of achievement for some parents, whose successful participation in volunteering has helped them to find paid jobs outside the school.

St Mary's is also a UNICEF Rights Respecting School, and pupils learn about the charter and how it affects them: the right of all to education, food, water, and freedom of religion. "This is particularly important to those children - including many of ours - who have arrived in this country with little or no previous education," Mr Palmer says.

St Mary's, Whalley Range, is in the parish of St Edmund's, whose Rector, the Revd Tony Hardy, leads an assembly one day each week. He says: "I'm delighted, but not surprised, that our school has won this award. Everyone's attitude goes beyond 'can do' to 'will do'. It's a real beacon of excellence in this very challenging area."


*The Magic Breakfast is a charity that seeks to ensure that "no child's education is affected by the lack of a good breakfast". The charity helps schools nationally, 22 of them C of E. For information and donations visit www.magicbreakfast.com.

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