Youngsters at the top school in the country, in South Harrow, do not follow the usual rules for learning. Chief reporter IAN PROCTOR sees what makes it so popular and academically successful
WHAT is the secret to being the top performing state primary school in the country? Newton Farm Nursery Infant and Junior School in Ravenscroft Crescent, South Harrow, has had the best Key Stage 2 SATs results in the UK for the past two years, despite 70 per cent of its pupils speaking English as a second language.
Headteacher Rekha Bhakoo, who took over in 1990 and is the second headteacher in the school’s history, said: “There is no recipe for success, but one of the things is having very high expectations of the children and of the staff and making sure that your curriculum is totally relevant to the pupils, and that it’s meaningful.”
Youngsters at the school study the National Curriculum, but in very creative way, and children of different age groups often work together, with the older pupils mentoring the younger ones.
The children spend a lot of time away from their desks in order to learn through means other than simply watching a teacher at a whiteboard, although it is ensured these more freeform approaches have a real impact.
Mrs Bhakoo said: “I’m very hands on and the children see me every single day.
“We monitor the children’s progress within a inch of their life. I look at children’s work every day and I monitor informingly what happens in class.
“I like to know exactly what’s happening in the classroom and what the students are learning and I look at teachers’ planning. The children evaluate lessons with me and they know what an ‘outstanding’ assessed lesson looks like and they can tell you when it’s not outstanding.
“The children give feedback to their teachers and the teachers take this on board. We test ourselves and where there are gaps, we fill those gaps so that the education for pupils is outstanding. We have joint practice developments and I feed back to staff. There’s cross-fertilisations of ideas.
“I go to lots of schools and see something and think, ‘That’s a good idea’, then come back here and try it.”
Mrs Bhakoo is a professional partner with the National College for School Leadership and assists other schools to improve, which earns Newton Farm some extra income.
Mrs Bhakoo said: “It’s not about the budget, though, but the process.
“There’s lots of schools that I think make just cosmetic changes and they coach the students to get through the SAT results.
“Our children have the much more useful language and oratory skills because we promote that from an early age. It’s not rocket science.
“Everyone who comes to the school is impressed with students’ focus and drive, and they are very well disciplined.
“Children take ownership of their learning. They speak of it not just at school but at home. We do algebra, literacy, times tables – but in a meaningful way.
“We have something called ‘The Pit’, it’s a question presented to the children at the end of every lesson. The children are put into The Pit and have to solve the problem using the skills they have learned, their numeracy, literacy and reasoning skills, and have to work in a reciprocal way to climb out of The Pit.”
Parent Meeta Bhudia, whose son Shaylan, eight, is in year three and daughter Shriya, nine, in year five, is enthusiastic about why the school’s refreshing approach to education has had such good results.
The mother-of-two said: “It’s the thinking outside the box, first of all. It’s not pen-and-paper learning, it’s learning through doing and experience and through different environments.
“They have high expectations and their philosophy runs through the school. The amount of confidence the school puts into the children can inspire parents.
“The junior children have homework three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the younger, infant children have homework on Friday that is due in on the Monday. They have spelling tests every week and have to read every single day. They have a reading record to note it all. Whenever someone asks what school my children go to, I’m proud to say Newton Farm.”
The school’s inclusiveness is demonstrated by the weekly Friday parents’ workshops held in the library and taking various guises. Sometimes children give a presentation to the adults about what they have been learning and on other occasions staff will lead a session on a skill such as creative writing.
Once a term, Mrs Bhakoo runs the meeting as an open forum for any ideas or grievances to be aired and it was from a parents’ suggestion that after school Spanish lessons were introduced.
Newton Farm children make such academic strides that most go on to independent schools because they have the skills and knowledge to pass the tough entrance exams, although the school does not specifically train them for it.
Many former pupils return to take assemblies about their achievements.
Meanwhile children’s thinking and development is bolstered by a range of extra-curricular activities such as chess club, which is so popular a second evening has been started, as well as clubs in gardening, debating, reading, cookery and many other hobbies.
The youngsters also enjoy yoga and Zumba exercise sessions and even a philosophy club and contribute to the school’s own newspaper.
“Every day there is something going on,” said Mrs Bhakoo.
Nearly three quarters of children arrive with English as a second language and some enrol with next to nothing or no knowledge at all.
They receive intensive one-to-one support in the classroom, surrounded by school friends, rather than being on their own and parents come in to support their son or daughter.
Last year, 518 children were chasing the 30 places available, making the school one of the most oversubscribed if not the most oversubscribed in the country, and it is planning to become an academy to further enjoy more freedoms surrounding the curriculum, school days and recruitment.
Mrs Bhakoo said: “It’s an excellent learning environment that encourages every child who comes here to do the very best they can and to believe in themselves.”