SCIENCE and technology is at the heart of the exciting developments at Willowtown Community Primary School in Ebbw Vale.

The school was rated in the red banding - meaning it required the greatest amount of Welsh Government support - as recently as 2015, but after investing in its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, it has seen a dramatic improvement, and is now in the green banding.

Headteacher Paul Keane took over in 2016 and said the school’s progress was down to the whole community pulling in the same direction.

“We have worked really hard,” he said. “We have gone on a big journey. In July 2015 we were a red school and were given a warning notice from the local authority.

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Nurture dog Barney with Mrs Bradley and L-R Alice Dix, Millie Matthews and Benjamin McCarthy at Willowtown Primary. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

“In three years, we have had a strong turnaround.

“We have a really strong leadership team here. I think it was down to all of the teachers committing to our ethos and vision.

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“That vision is really important to us. We want to be the vibrant, beating heart of the community, and we want our children to believe they can achieve as much or even more than children anywhere.

“Part of it is raising the aspirations of our children. We are focusing on STEM. We have put a lot in to the STEM subjects and have now become a Lead Network School.

“We’ve used grants from the local authority and Welsh Government for buying a 3D printer and robots for an immersion room, and the PTFA (The Parent, Teacher and Friends Association) have funded new computers in the computer suite.

“It’s important to let the children know what kinds of jobs are out there. The PTFA raise more than £10,000 a year and have been really generous. I can’t speak highly enough of them.

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Jack Price (L) and Dan He with teacher Jen Hawkins who are through to the final of the DVLA Code Challenge at Willowtown Primary. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

“It’s really brought the community together in helping and supporting the school.”

Mr Keane explained how the investment in STEM subjects is already paying off for the pupils.

“Our Year Six pupils won a national coding competition, and we have qualified for another coding competition,” he said. “We will also be hosting a Lego League competition. Our Year Fives and Sixes will be building Lego robots and working on coding them.

“Last year, we also took part in a project where our pupils built a racing car. These are all part of raising aspirations for our children.”

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Fun and games for reception class in the sand pit and water area at Willowtown Primary. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

As well as investing in technology, the school is placing an emphasis on outdoor learning.

“We have 10 free range chickens we bought at Easter,” said Mr Keane. “We keep fish, and use the fish waste to fertilise our vegetable garden.

“This fits in with the focus on STEM subjects. We have parents who help maintain our community garden. We have even applied for a licence to keep two pygmy goats.”

The school also has its own dog, a red Labrador called Barney, and is hoping to launch a beekeeping project in March.

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Aquaponics at Willowtown Primary. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

“Science and nature are really important to us,” said Mr Keane. “When you think about this community and the industrial history here, we thought it makes sense to open up our learners to the future jobs in this area.

“There are also lots of opportunities for outdoor play here for the children. It’s important to us they can access nature all year round because we think it helps build resilience and it gets them used to the world around them.

“This is another area where we have worked very closely with the community to develop. These projects were funded by grants from the local authority and the Welsh Government.

“We are looking in to starting a community café at the school. It would be run by volunteers, and the children would spend time out of class working in the café, making some of the food that is sold, serving members of the public, and handling cash.

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School chickens at Willowtown Primary. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

“It would teach the children life skills. We are currently looking for funding to get that off the ground.”

Mr Keane also credited the PTFA with the school’s development in the creative arts.

“The PTFA raised £3,000 to fund the development of an Expressive Arts room,” he said. “We are one of the Arts Centre of Wales’ Lead Creative Schools, and they have helped fund us to develop some really exciting creative projects.”

The headteacher explained how every decision made by the school has adhered to five values set out by the staff, parents and students when he took over.

“We have five values at the school,” he said. “Confident learners; Engaging curriculum; Challenging activities; Fun and excitement; and Child-led learning.

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“We came up with these values three years ago with the help of parents and the children themselves, and we try to make sure everything we do is based around them.”

Mr Keane praised the school’s staff in being instrumental in turning things around.

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Willowtown Primary School of the week. Picture: www.christinsleyphotography.co.uk

“It was making sure we get all the staff on board,” he said. “They have been really committed to digging deep for the children.

“We have developed leaders within the school, and they have gone to other schools, sharing what they have learnt and come back with new ideas to use in school.

“Our leaders want to make a difference in our community and are committed to improving the school.

“I’m lucky myself. I have been chosen as one of 12 associates in the National Academy for Education Leadership. It’s important to share that with the rest of the team here.”

Mr Keane is leaving in January, but believes everything is in place to continue the school’s upwards trajectory.

“The team we have here is really strong and has been united in taking the school forward,” he said.

“It’s a proud community and I’ve been really proud to have been headteacher here. I want to give the community something to be proud of with the progress of this school and the children here.

“A lot of the staff are from this community and I think that has helped us to put something special in place here.

“I’m hopeful for the future and hope the children will leave with the idea they can do as well as any child from any school across the country.”

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Paul Keane

Fact file:

  • Headteacher: Paul Keane has been headteacher since April 2016, having been acting headteacher for two terms before that.
  • Schools motto: Challenge. Achieve. Aspire for more.
  • The school was founded in 1908 but moved to its current building in 2007.
  • There are about 450 students at the school, nursery and learning resource base, aged from three to 11.