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Pride in the School

15 July 2005

Every head teacher has pride in their school and its achievements, but what makes Owler Brook in Sheffield so special? Head teacher Sue Graville tells her own story of why PFI has made a difference to the school and the pupils

FOUR YEARS AGO we moved from an old Victorian building into a brand new purpose built school as part of a group of six schools built by Sheffield’s first PFI scheme facilities managed by Interserve. As a school that had already faced more challenges in it’s history than most, it is now located in a modern single storey purpose built school with all the appropriate facilities to ensure a full inclusive education can take place with décor to enhance, stimulate and celebrate the learning.

During the last four years not only has the school continued to develop in all areas but it has also achieved the Basic Skills Quality Mark, Investors In People Award and the Gold Arts Mark for Creative Arts through the curriculum. In June 2001 OFSTED recognised the progress and the improvement was reported in Parliament, the result being we were given Beacon Status.

To fully appreciate the movements that have been made, you have to look back at the last five years to see the different ingredients that have influenced this change.

Owler Brook is a larger than average multicultural Nursery Infant School in the inner city of Sheffield. It serves an area of high disadvantage and social deprivation. The schools community consists of 89.9 per cent children with English as an additional language, 70 per cent who are in the earliest stages of English acquisition. Seventeen nationalities are represented within the school with up to 12 languages spoken. A high percentage of children are refugees or asylum seekers some of whom have experienced great trauma in their short lives so far. The transient nature of the community does not support stability in learning as in the last academic year we had a movement of 77 children in and out of the school.

Five years ago the school was situated in the middle of a large secondary school campus, with older children who used our play spaces as access areas as they moved from lesson to lesson, and on too many occasions they used our children as targets for their adolescence frustrations. The secondary school was deemed a fresh start school and therefore a new build sanctioned. Owler Brook also at the time was experiencing social, educational and staffing issues and so a new Head Teacher was bought in.

Now was the time for the school to meet head on and address the problems and challenge themselves. It was then Owler Brook became involved with the new PFI initiative.

What an opportunity for myself as a new Head to influence education of the future generation and to lead the staff forward. We used this time to review teaching and learning, management systems, movement systems and to clear out the clutter that had accumulated over the life of the old school. The clutter was not just outdated books and resources, but the clutter that individuals carry ‘because we have always done it like this’ - the teacher ‘security blankets’. Leading so many changes needed sensitivity and many felt it hard, but as leader you must move all forward, be honest and firm in beliefs. If you try to recreate the old outdated styles and systems into the new school it will not work.

To capitalise on these opportunities Head Teachers need to enter into open dialogue with the staff, children, parents, and then with the architects and providers to share an alliance between the architecture and pedagogy. Therefore during the design phase we were planning, reviewing management issues and movement systems and incorporating them into the new build at the design stage. By building up a good working relationship with the provider, attending all meetings, being honest and being prepared to compromise at times the staff achieved the success they so richly deserved. We all became winners. The raised levels of expectation, raised levels of achievement, raised levels of respect and progress has been the result.

At Owler Brook we strongly believe that the quality of the physical environment and the resources provided means that the school environment becomes ‘the third teacher’. It supports not only the academic learning but also the social and emotional education of respect and tolerance. This with the design of the outside areas creates an environment in which children are eager to learn, where children are unafraid of making mistakes and feel able to talk because they know they will be listened to.

The school building has indoor and outdoor spaces that are linked and where children are in close contact with nature, weather, water, earth and living things. Imaginative spaces and display areas celebrate the children’s imaginative play, recording and learning. The use of natural light and subdued lighting in certain areas of the school for specific purposes enhances the atmosphere. Colour schemes are subdued and areas are colour coded allowing them to be used as a learning tool for children who have little English. This careful choice of colour has had an extra unplanned effect, in that the noise level of the children at work has been reduced as they are not over stimulating their senses with bright colour and walls filled to over capacity of work. The tonal colours act as an enhancement to the work on display and an air of calmness can be felt upon entering into the school.

Having an environment which is well maintained by the Interserve team and respected by all those who work, learn and use daily has meant that all areas of learning have been improved and this is reflected in the increased levels of learning by all evidenced in the SAT results.

The support of the facilities management Interserve team and the PFI has meant that we have been able to continue to build on these successes and now have a thriving community Life Long Learning wing added onto the school where 160 parents and community members attend classes to support their children’s learning alongside their own needs in preparation for returning to work or just looking at building upon their own learning, knowledge and skills.

As with everything nothing runs as smoothly as one would like, but opening up channels of communication based on trust, understanding, respect and willingness to compromise means that the school can thrive and truly be an inclusive community building giving all who enter in the door the best opportunities for learning and achievement as possible.

If I had not had a new school the changes would still have been made but I know that the majority of my time would still be taken up with issues around heating, building repairs, leaking roofs, cold unimaginative dinners and chasing up the LEA works department for quotes or repairs. I now can do the job for which I am trained and paid for, that of Head Teacher leading an excellent hard working teaching and support team and dealing with educational issues. Therefore leaving the FM to the Interserve team who can give the necessary time and expertise to look, deal with and complete the tasks to maintain the facility at its best.

That is why I am proud of this school and proud of the staff and parents who have worked with me even when it was challenging them. Proud of the children and their work and proud of the community I serve who have supported me. Proud that I have been given this opportunity to have such a wonderful building in which we all feel safe and proud to be in.

....Sue Graville is Head Teacher at Owler Brook Nursary and Infants School in Sheffield


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