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Outstanding Catholic primary celebrates its successes

Headteacher Joseph McCrossan has been at St Alban's Catholic Primary School in Cambridge for nine years and in that time, with the support of the school community, has moved the school forward offering a high achieving and rich curriculum, bringing many successes.

Amongst the successes the school has achieved in the past few years include being awarded; an Outstanding judgement by Ofsted, the national Equalities Award for diversity, the national IT Mark for computing, an Outstanding Section 48 report (Catholic Inspection 2016), sending Alban the Bear, the school mascot, into space and for three consecutive years being regional netball champions.

"Not bad for a school with seven classes of 30 children," said Joseph.

However, there is one challenge which is proving to be very difficult and that is not being able to offer all Catholic children this entitlement. He has seen a sustained need for Catholic places and under current legislation is unable to increase the number of children receiving a Catholic education in the city. That is until now.

"It is great to be so popular but improving standards, offering a broad and exciting curriculum and only being able to offer this to a small percentage of the Catholic community has been challenging," said Joseph. "However, the proposal of removing the 50% cap will give Catholic schools the chance to reach out to more families."

St Alban's Catholic Primary is an Outstanding school (Ofsted December 2014) in the city of Cambridge and is part of the Diocese of East Anglia. The school is one of only two Catholic schools in Cambridgeshire, a county that stretches from Wisbech in the north to Royston in the south, and from St Neots in the west to Newmarket in the east. There are a total of 210 primary schools in Cambridgeshire and between them, St Alban's and St Laurence's (the other Catholic school in the city) jointly can only offer 75 places in Reception class each year.

"There is no Catholic provision for Catholic families outside of the city and of the 30 places we offer, on average 40-50% of these go to children with siblings already at the school," said Joseph.

The pressure on the school is immense and each year Joseph has to tell prospective parents that the likelihood of their child getting a place at St Alban's is slim. However, with the government's new "Schools that work for everyone" programme, he hopes that more families will be offered Catholic places in other parts of the city and county.

"The Diocese of East Anglia is linking in with us here at St Alban's, St Laurence and our Inter Faith Secondary school St Bede's to develop our long-term strategy for Catholic education. We are all working very hard on developing free school bids for our area. We see this as an opportunity that we must take and one which will help to further secure high quality Catholic education for many families for many years to come," said Joseph.

In the meantime, the school must continues to promote itself in many ways amongst the community as there is a danger parents will accept that applying to the school will only lead to disappointment. The positive outlook is all down to great community cohesion where the school looks to embrace the talents of the staff, parents, governors, pupils and external agencies, creating a vibrant and successful school.

Underpinning all of this is the school mission statement;

"St Alban's School exists to ensure that all children believe, achieve and succeed."

This may read as a very secular statement but when you ask the children what this means they confidently refer to the Gospel values

"The children wanted and needed something which was easily remembered and understood by everyone," said Joseph.

At St Alban's we Believe that:

  • God sent His only Son to earth and there is only one true God
  • We must love and care for each other
  • We must treat others like we would like to be treated ourselves

At St Alban's we Achieve because:

  • We know how to behave and understand when we should work and play
  • Everybody is treated equally and everyone expects us to do our best
  • We value everything we learn and experience at school

At St Alban's we Succeed because;

  • We are given interesting things to learn and challenge us
  • We all want to do our best
  • We enjoy celebrating our talents and gifts which God has given us

When people visit the school they know the school's aims are alive in the daily lives of the children. Ofsted 2014 noted: "There is a delightful atmosphere in school. Pupils very keenly take responsibility and work very hard. Pupils feel very safe and behave exceptionally well."

This is very evident at the school where children take a key role in ensuring their school is a happy place to learn.

At the beginning of each year, as in most schools, there is a lot of activity with hustings for School Council reps, House Captains (Corinthians, Thessalonians, Galatians and Ephesians) and most importantly the School Chaplains. All of these positions generate forums for Pupil Voice throughout the year. The pupils thrive in these positions as it is an opportunity for them to have an influence in the leadership and management of the school.

The House Captains' first responsibility is to update the behaviour principles in the Behaviour Policy by having a school rule assembly in the first few weeks. Once the principles have been agreed by the children they are presented to the governors at the first Full Governors Meeting at the beginning of the year. A daunting prospect for some but the children always rise to the occasion.

The school Chaplains role is to plan with the RE Subject leaders, assemblies and seasonal celebrations. It is their responsibility to lead Meditation assembly once a week where you will witness two confident Year 6 children talking about the Word of God and celebrating their faith, acknowledged in the recent RE inspection.

"The extremely strong Catholic identity permeates the school's daily life. Pupils develop a deep understanding of their faith through the richness of their experiences of the Catholic traditions of worship, prayer and service." (Section 48, 2016)

The School Council is a very ambitious group of children wanting to raise money for the school and for others. Their positive attitude inspires them to always be looking for ideas to make their school more exciting. At times the sky is too high but their enthusiasm and creativity never dampens. Recently the children have created their own wooded village by purchasing willow panels to make little dens in the wooded area and wind breaks to make a maze for the infants.

In order for the school to flourish, Joseph relies on strong partnerships with neighbouring schools, the Local Authority and the Diocese. As mentioned earlier there are only two Catholic schools in Cambridgeshire and so Joseph and Clare (Head at St Laurence) are working in collaboration with the Peterborough Catholic heads on joint projects such as collective worship, Relationships and Sex Education curriculum and most recently Multi Academy Trusts.

In this time of vulnerability, Joseph and the other heads are prepared to travel up to an hour to each other's schools. School to school support is essential and the heads meet at least once each half term to discuss matters affecting their schools. There is no complacency, even though the schools have gone through recent inspections where the outcomes were at least good. The honest and at times challenging dialogue creates a healthy partnership to ensure all Catholic children receive a high quality Catholic education. The Word can now be spread if the Prime Minister removes the 50% cap as the Catholic schools are in a good position to open up new Free Schools.

St Alban's Catholic Primary sits in the heart of the city. At times the school can feel isolated and so it is important the school steps out of the classroom and embraces the invitation of the city. The school takes full advantage of the wealth of culture and history it is surrounded by. Joseph feels passionately that all Cambridge children are entitled to know what their city looks like and experience the many universities, museums and churches. The school has close links with all these institutions from Latin classes being taught by students from the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology to the school participating fully in Cambridge Science Week.

One "entitlement" St Alban's has created is a series of walks known as the Footprints of Faith. In conjunction with Cambridge Culture, the Church Schools of Cambridge and the Diocese of East Anglia, the school has put together four walks for every child in the school and on offer to anyone, which enables them to follow a route through time exploring the chapels and universities. The walks provide every child with the chance to walk through doors and enter rooms which are usually observed from a distance. The children will learn how faith has been instrumental in the growth of Cambridge via four topics; Catholic Walk, Science Walk, Slavery Walk and Peace walk.

In the nine years Joseph has been at St Alban's he hopes every child has felt happy and safe, and left the school with a great desire to learn.

"it is always a pleasure to see children returning to the school with a smile and commenting on how much they enjoyed their experience," he said, "and it is always a delight to receive letters (using the St Alban's leaving gift pen) from children and families who send their gratitude for the rich experiences they have received at St Alban's."

In this time of change, Joseph continues to look for new challenges not only for himself but for the school community: "The school is a place of learning but it is a place where we have to identify talents and ensure every child Achieves, Believes and Succeeds."