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After its dismal Ofsted report last May/June, I was expecting to find despondent teachers and unmotivated children at John Perryn School when I visited. It was surprising to meet with two enthusiastic groups of children and a number of inspiring teachers.   Perhaps the most inspiring of these is Von Smith, Headteacher, who arrived at the school in September.

Von Smith is known for her work with schools facing difficult times. Her troubleshooting has already seen one school, Perivale, brought out of special measures and she supported Southfield School during what she calls a "troubled period". She has worked in many other boroughs and has experience of many different ways of achieving what she calls "Good Learning". She told me local authorities work in many different ways. "I won't put up with help from inadequate people and I'm lucky to work with a superb team at Ealing Council."  

For John Perryn, whose Ofsted report in July last year described the school as having "exceptionally low standards", recommending the mixed Primary school for 3-11 year-olds should be put into special measures, the presence of this capable, confident and inspiring woman must be a huge relief.   

Since she arrived at the school, it has been earmarked to benefit from the injection of £6.5million as part of the Primary Capital Programme. This money comes to the school in 2008, so I wanted to see for myself how teachers and children are managing during a challenging and exciting period.  

I learned much about the school from Ms Smith. A large proportion of the pupils is currently 'mobile': pupils often do not stay very long. As a result the school is a diverse mix of pupils from different cultures "but this is a very inclusive community," she says. "Even the Ofsted inspectors said that this is a very special group of children".

A significant proportion of the children at the school come from outside Ealing Borough. "We would like to have more local children at the school, but over the last few years, the relationship between the school and the local community has broken down."   When questioned about the school's recent history, Ms Smith is tactful: "The people who worked here before cared for the school, but maybe they just hadn't come to terms with where the school had to go".

Now, as well as the huge challenge of working on the new plan for the school, she has to take the initiative to improve things for the children. She and her staff show huge dedication to their task. Encouraged by Ms Smith, an after school homework club is due to start next term at the Traveller settlement in Park Royal Industrial Estate which she says is "beautiful.... spotless. The Traveller children bring special vibrancy to the school." I later met a polite, pretty 10-year-old, her hair immaculately clean and plaited. She is one of those children.

The teachers also, in their own time and unpaid, run other after school clubs including pottery, sewing and French. Sports Clubs will be starting up soon.  

As well as overseeing a remarkable improvement in the school, Von Smith is at the centre of the planning process for the new school which will be built after the arrival of the Primary Capital money. She is passionate about the project, down to the smallest detail. "Having worked in lots of schools I hadn't actually realised, for instance, that I dislike corridors. They waste space, and heating." She is asking the planners to use innovative ways to create dual-purpose space. "It's the little things which matter: there has to be enough storage, the coat hooks have to be the right distance apart, there must be enough toilets...." 

She also knows how important it is to build something which will be a success for the community as a whole. "This area doesn't have a focus, so the school needs to have a 'wow' factor." At the moment, the plans are being discussed with two building contractors.  Ms Smith, school governors and Ealing Council officers will choose the best one. She told me she has a team of governors who are "supportive but critical and ask all the right questions."

Ms Smith wants to put a time capsule under the new school. Children, staff and the local community will get a chance to have a say in what goes into it.

I was introduced to children in a reception class run by Minna Grigorian, Phase Leader for Foundation Stage. Her class were all well-occupied and learning to count using an interactive white board. Pupils in Claire Fowler's Year 5 class were all applying themselves and there was a vibrant atmosphere during their maths lesson. These children seemed enthusiastic and full of energy to learn. Mary told me she thought school was "fun"; and Yasmin said "my teacher is really good".

HMI recently completed one of their termly reports on the school and Ms Smith was delighted to see that they are already acknowledging the hard work of the last few months. In the report, the inspectors commented that "weaknesses are being tackled robustly" and that the school is now judged "satisfactory". Ms Smith says that it is important to secure and consolidate the improvements which have already been made. "It won't do the school any favours to be taken out of special measures early. The remarks made by HMI exceeded my expectations and I trust that the report was sufficiently positive to make the staff feel that all their hard work has been worthwhile."

It will be interesting to watch this school at a pivotal time in its life. The new building looks set to provide a much-needed injection of energy into this part of Acton. John Perryn Primary is very lucky to have an inspiring captain and hardworking, dedicated teachers to steer it through the next few months.  


March 14, 2007