Three things struck me forcibly about St Mary’s:
- This felt like a very safe and child friendly environment, with small courtyards and learning spaces. Reception was especially striking with its cool blue feel and wonderful photomural of children — a powerful indication of what the place is all about. In human terms it's really well led, with a clear sense of purpose. Dorothy Harmer is a real finger-on-the-pulse head, right at the heart of the enterprise, and it shows. There’s an great staff mix, support as well as teaching.
- A visitor from space would wonder how large the classes were, because you encounter many sizes of work group around the place. This is backed by really good differentiation in teaching and learning. I saw some excellent individual special needs work, and some small group work with gifted and talented Children, so the whole range is really encouraged here. As I always find with Church schools, children come from many backgrounds and faiths. Staff work hard to ensure that everybody in this school knows emphatically that they are special.
- This is a radically inclusive community, with a wide range of backgrounds, religions and special attainments. Everybody is encouraged to grow in self-respect as who they are — the school has won awards for its inclusivity. People work hard here to grow mutual respect and understanding. The children I met oozed confidence, from very small reception children using an interactive whiteboard intelligently and in turns to the school councillors who interviewed me for the village news.
There’s been a fluster this week of silly puff in the press, amidst politicking by the Government’s ambitious and (on this subject) eponymous Mr Balls implying so-called Faith Schools are sinister and exclusive. It usually arises from some London based journalist being unable to wangle their kids into the precise one they wanted. The fact is that 76% of the population tick the Christian box, and there are places for about 33% of the nation’s children in free Church schools. Go figure. I have no idea how this becomes an argument for denying ordinary people access to Church schools unless they pay thousands of pounds for private education. In a democracy, why shouldn't something people want be freely available to as many as possible who want it?
This ignorance is vastly insulting to the hard work that dedicated staff do every day in schools like St Mary’s to include everyone, and give them a transformative education regardless of background or creed. They do this because they are Church Schools, not in spite of it.