Published: 06:00, 07 May 2019
Just 18 months ago, Pilgrims’ Way School was reeling from a damning Ofsted report, which said an “unprecedented” influx of children from a deprived London borough had contributed to its struggle.
But as the school faces a potential new intake from the same council, academy bosses say it has the space and is much better-equipped to cope with its multi-cultural pupils' background.
The school faces a unique challenge for its area of Canterbury.
Ex-army homes on the former Howe Barracks have been allocated to Redbridge Council, which is expected to send 32 families to the city from its own waiting list once the properties in Sobraon Way are refurbished.
But the prospect does not daunt the school’s executive head Graham Chisnell, whose Veritus Multi-Academy Trust took on Pilgrims’ Way a year ago.
Instead, he and his staff are embracing the school’s multi-cultural make-up, which he says brings a unique and rewarding learning experience for its children.
“We are now well-versed in supporting children from a variety of cultures,” he said
“To have that social diversity will be a really valuable thing for our children as they grow and learn.
“It’s been a bumpy ride to get to this point, but there’s a real richness and uniqueness at this school which is not commonplace in Kent.”
At present, almost a third of the current school roll of 278 only speak English as a second or third language. Its pupils speak 25 different languages.
On the potentially controversial issue of more former Redbridge children taking school places, Mr Chisnell said: “I don’t see any differentiation between our local residents - if they are in our locality, they need our support.
“I wouldn’t differentiate between a white English family and a Nepalese family. If the Nepalese family came to me first and asked for the place, then they would have it.
“There is no preference in ethnicity. If they are living in our community, we have to support them.”
The school’s capacity to take dozens more children is partly a legacy of its previous poor Ofsted, admits Mr Chisnell - a reputation which, he insists, is now outdated.
“I think its important to say that the school went into special measures for a number of complex reasons, not just because of the families who came here from Howe Barracks,” he said.
“But there was a reported degree of unrest in the community when the families first arrived. Now the sense that we have a multi-cultural community is more in place in the locality, hopefully it won’t struggle with that as much.”
“It’s been a bumpy ride to get to this point, but there’s a real richness and uniqueness at this school which is not commonplace in Kent...” - Graham Chisnell, Veritus Multi-Academy Trust
Mr Chisnell says his team has looked at how other schools which have similar ethnic diversity and influx, like the London boroughs, have managed and the systems they use.
“Our approach is to keep children in their educational age group while supporting their language needs, because some children may be strong in other areas, like maths or science,” he said.
Mr Chisnell admits the school struggles financially because of the low intake, which the trust is trying to address through “creative” measures and goodwill.
“To put it bluntly, we need more bums on seats, but we are regularly getting more children joining us,” he said.
Head teacher Anne-Marie Middleton says the school now has much more robust procedures in place to cope and support new children, adding: “We also have staff here from a range of cultures, which helps.”
She points to the curriculum, which has also been redesigned and enhanced to give pupils a much more immersive educational experience, like its new forest school and music, to engage their passions.
“We bring in inspirational sportsmen and women and have a school council to hear the children’s own ideas,” she said.
Mr Chisnell says he is confident all the effort going into the school and children will result in a far better outcome when it is next inspected by Oftsed in a couple of years.
“I would hope we will get a ‘good’ school rating, but ‘outstanding’ would be an incredible achievement,” he said.
More by this authorGerry Warren