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 Sunday, 14 July, 2002, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Flying the starship school
Hazel Fox and Preet Sahota
Entering the innovation zone

Walking into West Heath Junior school in Birmingham is like walking into a TV make-over show.

Every classroom seems to have its own theme or colour and the school is packed with state-of-the-art computers.

The school has been recognised by government inspectors as a place of innovation, a school of the future.

You would never believe that four and a half years ago it was dilapidated, with poor test results and an atmosphere in the corridors that the present head, Preet Sahota, describes as "like nuclear war".

Hazel Fox in the computer suite
Deputy head Hazel Fox believes everyone has benefited from the new technology
Take the literacy room: it has an oriental theme, the ceiling is draped with light-coloured material and there is a big carved seat made out of MDF, covered with animal-print cloth.

There is another area, converted in dramatic style, from an old cupboard, where the older children can do independent learning.

It is designed to look like a cyber cafe and the children love it.


Ten-year-old Joel says its the best thing about the school: "It's my favourite place here.

"You can do your own work there and it's nice to know you are trusted."

"My friends who don't come here are jealous."

The classrooms are painted in different bright colours, chosen by the staff and pupils, and the floors are either wood or aluminium.

But the biggest surprise is the computer room.

Preet Sahota
Preet Sahota calls the school and its achievements 'Top Gun'
With a dark entrance guarded by a life-size cut-out of Darth Vader, it looks more like a high-tech control room or a film-maker's idea of a space-ship.

The PCs are underneath a glass desk-top, tilted up.

In the centre of the black and metallic room there is a bubbling tank.

Preet Sahota, who came to the school in January 1998, says the transformation of the school came about thanks to the vision of a woman who died last year, education consultant Maria Aldridge.

Unconventionally, he appointed her on an equal footing as himself so she could report directly to the governors.

She was called an "effectiveness co-ordinator", with responsibilities which stretched from redesigning the environment, to staff mentoring and training.

'Passionate teaching'

Mr Sahota said he was dismayed when he first took over the school and saw how troubled it was.

Maria Aldridge was one of four consultants he brought in to look at it.

Mr Sahota said: "She said, 'Let's create a school like no other, at the cutting edge of innovation'.

"Then, this dynamic partnership was founded," said Mr Sahota.

West Heath's literacy room
The school's literacy room was the first to be made over
He said the vision was to create an environment where "passionate buzzy teaching" took place.

The pupils at West Heath obviously love the environment and take pride in it.

Jordan, who is 10, said: "The most exciting thing is the Starship Mea (the computer room).

"When I saw it, it was like 'Whoa'. I thought the room was just getting a lick of paint."

Like Jordan, 11-year-old Sophie, was at the school under the old regime.

"The teachers are all changed. They are kind and help us more with our work," she said.

Money matters

As head teachers press the government for more money for their schools, many will ask where West Heath gets the cash to make such dramatic renovations.

Mr Sahota says it is all down to good financial management.

"The local education authority sent in the auditors twice because they did not think we could be doing this on our budget," he said.

"But everything came out of the main school budget, together with some help from business.

"If you manage public funds properly, don't waste money and recycle and renovate what you have, it can be done."

The innovation at the school has brought awards for the school, as well as personal accolades and awards for Mr Sahota and Maria Aldridge.

It has also coincided with a year-on-year increase in national test results. Ofsted inspectors say there has been a big improvement in teaching quality and that the school gives very good value for money.

"The innovation is not just about the visuals," Mr Sahota said.

"It's about creating a calm, ordered environment so that people - children and staff - can be creative".


The innovation stretches to the way teachers work too.

Mr Sahota and his deputy, Hazel Fox, work to reduce the workload of teachers at the school.

This is a matter close to the government's heart. It commissioned a study into workload after teaching unions cited it as the reason why most teachers quit.

At West Heath, all teachers and teaching assistants have a laptop, leased with cash from the main budget, which they use to draw up lesson plans or access children's work.

They also use software by which children's work is sent online for marking and is returned in an hour, with added graphs and information.

"I enjoy all the new technology we have now," says Jordan
Deputy head Hazel Fox said: "We took away the mundane tasks from teachers and brought in part-time administrators to help.

"Jobs such as cutting out cardboard, organising trips, putting up displays were handed over, giving teachers more time."

The teachers also have a guaranteed amount of time when they are out of the classroom, so-called non-contact time.

A key plank of the school's policy is for teachers to go on training together, so that they will be more effective in implementing what they have learned.

"We don't have an ICT co-ordinator," says Mrs Fox.

"It's a team."

It is a team which seem proud to have a school which accepts all children and aims to give them high expectations.

They say they took in nine children last year who had been expelled from other local schools.

The school is in a poor suburb of Birmingham, where many families have been hit by the job losses at the Longbridge plant.

About forty per cent of children have free school meals.

Most classes have been renovated with a distinctive look
They talk of a seven-year-old pupil who came to school with a knife, saying he needed it to protect himself because the other children on his estate had them.

"We find it easy to integrate excluded children, it's as if there is something in the air," said Mrs Fox.

"We spend a lot of time with them, talking to them and encouraging them and rewarding them when they behave well."

But they are not protected from all violence.

While I am at the school, Mrs Fox is visibly shaken after being verbally abused by a parent at the school gates.

She had tried for a long time, and failed, to get a child to come in from the playground for lessons, so she called his parents to take him home .

The man had shouted at her saying the school could not control his son.

"We get this at least once a week," says Mr Sahota.

The parent will be getting a letter from the school's governors and the incident does not dampen spirits for too long.

Overall, the atmosphere among the children and the staff seems to be that which the school says it aims for: calm, composed, caring and confident.

See also:

13 May 02 | Education
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