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Pupil numbers hit at The Willows – but school fights on for better Ofsted rating

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The Willows Primary School in Newbury says it has lost 34 pupil places in this year’s reception class intake – severely affecting its budget for next year.

It says the opening of the new, multi-million pound Highwood Copse school on its doorstep has had an impact, along with an overall drop in numbers.

The Willows headteacher Jo MacArthur says the drop in numbers will mean a budget cut of around £120,000 to her school next year – just as it hopes to emerge from poor Ofsted ratings.

Staff at The Willows proud of progress
Staff at The Willows proud of progress

“It’s a real blow to us,” she said. “Highwood Copse has had an impact on us. We are a two form entry primary school which means we take 60 children each year. This year we only had 26 children apply for a place in reception. This means we are 34 children down this year.

“I think the numbers of children seeking places are low this year and with an extra school in the community those numbers have to stretch across one more school than we are used to. There has been a knock on effect."

The Greenham school has been clawing itself out of Oftsed ‘requires improvement’ status for three years, and it is confident that inspectors will upgrade it to 'good' when they next visit.

School displays encourage learning
School displays encourage learning

“I think, sadly, because we haven’t been re-inspected [it was delayed due to Covid] we haven’t had the opportunity to show everyone the progress we have made over the past few years which has been quite significant,” said Ms MacArthur.

“It is a shame for us that have worked so hard to improve things here. This just makes things more difficult."

Ms MacArthur took over the helm three years ago – she was previously at Mortimer School – and The Willows was in financial difficulty then, with around £250,000 debt.

“We will have to work harder next year with the budget cut," she said. "I’m not going to lie. It is not going to be easy.

Mike Steer is proud of the progress
Mike Steer is proud of the progress

“Our team want their hard work recognised. We have been on a journey and we would really welcome Ofsted to come and inspect us again so we can show what progress has been made.”

The new team came in with the ethos that the children, the community, the parents deserve a good school.

“We worked hard on the behaviour – and our children are fabulous. They are the best thing about this school and are a credit to us. They are our best ambassadors and we are very proud of them,” she added.

The Willows Primary School
The Willows Primary School

She inherited some challenges around the behaviour of children at the school, which, at its worst had six pupils excluded in one year. Ms MacArthur came in with a new broom.

The incoming team brought in a set of school ‘values’ – building confidence and resilience in learning. They are taught that nothing comes easy in life, and that they persevere – with a smile on their face.

"The biggest change we have made here is children's learning behaviours," said team leader Martin Jezzard. "Both behaviour conduct-wise, but also learning behaviours. This includes the children's ability to work together and how they can keep on going, what they can do to help themselves and help each other."

The effort is clear. Corridor walls encourage reading and learning at every turn. Classrooms are bright, cheery and full of projects being worked on by children.

The staff, too, are proud to show off the progress made by the school, the children and the community around it.

"Even small steps in learning help the children feel good about themselves," said team leader Laura Waldeck.

“We want our children to be interested in learning and love learning and we focussed on the basic skills of reading, writing and adding up," said deputy head Mike Steer. "I think the progress we have made as a school has made a big difference. We now need Ofsted to come in and recognise that, and we hope that will change perceptions.”

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