06:00PM, Saturday 03 June 2017
‘Trust us and we will get there’.
That is the message to families from the team working to restore the reputation of Bisham Primary School.
It’s about two-and-a-half years since the village school went from being one of the best regarded in the Royal Borough to one of the worst.
And despite all the naysayers warning prospective parents about tanking standards and a plot to sell the site for housing, there are plenty of signs that things are getting back on track.
“There is still a lot of negativity out there and perceptions that the school will close,” said Isabel Cooke, executive principal for the Ashley Hill Multi Academy Trust (AHMAT), which Bisham is joining.
“But as a school and as a community we are absolutely committed to keeping the school open and here for the future of the community.
“We’re constantly speaking to the local authority and they understand the school is small at the moment and they understand our needs.”
At its last inspection in March 2016, Bisham had 48 pupils, compared to 110 when it was visited in 2014.
Much of the ill-feeling stems from 2014, the same year AHMAT was formed with Knowl Hill CE Primary School and White Waltham CE Academy, when Bisham was placed in special measures by Ofsted inspectors.
In 2012 Bisham had been rated ‘good’ in all areas but, in the space of just two years, it had slumped to ‘inadequate’, with a report highlighting weak teaching and inefficient leadership.
The findings prompted the suspension and subsequent resignation* of long-serving headteacher Jim Cooke and an exodus of pupils.
Since then, matters have steadily improved, culminating in an assessment in March last year, which took it out of special measures and gave it a rating of ‘requires improvement’.
With the school once again proving it was viable, thoughts turned to plans for the long term, leading to a decision to move 13 pupils from years four, five and six to Knowl Hill to save money.
And it’s a move which seems to have been vindicated, with children and parents at both schools happy with the situation so far.
“It’s worked so well,” said Knowl Hill’s head of school Nichole Bourner.
“I think some of our parents were a bit apprehensive about it at first but it’s been really amazing and it’s really benefited the children at Knowl Hill too.
“It’s become a bit more competitive and the children have made better progress than we had hoped because there’s a better dynamic in the classroom.”
As well as swapping pupils, the arrangement between the schools also allows them to share other burdens.
This can include moderating standards, the cost of school trips or even parents roped in to do talks and presentations at their own children’s school who are then invited to the other schools in the trust.
Bisham’s head of school Hayley Broad (pictured below) said: “It’s been a positive way forward and we’ve taken on some of the more robust systems the other schools have.
“They’re tried and trusted methods and there’s the collaboration between staff too.
“I think small schools can be quite isolated but, by being in the trust, you can work together and share resources.
“Teachers aren’t just having to sit alone, they can work in teams and share the workload.”
One issue raised on several occasions is the prospect of the school eventually being closed and the campus sold for development.
But it’s an idea the trust is keen to pour cold water on – not least because covenants on the land mean it has to be used for education.
And as if to emphasise this further, plans are being considered to convert the former on-site school house, abandoned with the departure of Mr Cooke, into additional teaching space.
Mrs Broad added: “I think everyone wants the school house to be used by the pupils.
“We want to expand what we offer them and I don’t think anyone would begrudge them that.”
It’s an ambition which will undoubtedly meet with some resistance. But the feeling throughout is very much that the school has moved on from where it was a few years ago.
Reception and year one teacher Linzi Haynes said: “It’s worlds apart [from what it was like before].
“There were elements that needed to be fixed immediately and we did that.
“We’ve had a massive amount of hard work from parents and staff, getting right down to the nitty gritty and making the school what it needs to be.
“Stability, organisation and leadership have all been key – with that in place you have a clear view of where you want to go.”
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Mr Cooke had been sacked from his role. We apologise for the error.
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