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School has strong faith in the future

PUBLISHED: 17:30 04 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:37 03 March 2010

CHURCH schools might be coming in for criticism nationally - but here in Suffolk they are more popular than ever.

In fact, places at St Matthew's Primary in Ipswich are in such demand that three new classrooms are being built.

CHURCH schools might be coming in for criticism nationally – but here in Suffolk they are more popular than ever.

In fact, places at St Matthew's Primary in Ipswich are in such demand that three new classrooms are being built.

FAITH schools are not just for a small elite – but very much for the whole community.

That's the message from Clive Minnican, head teacher of St Matthew's Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School in Ipswich, which is going from strength to strength.

The school is so popular that it is having to build on three new classrooms to cope with the rising demand.

It has won a whole string of awards, and now, as the latest feather in its cap, it has achieved a glowing report from Ofsted inspectors.

"Church schools have sometimes been accused of snobbishness, but it's certainly not here!" commented Mr Minnican, who has been at the helm for the last eight years.

"There is such a good family atmosphere – it's the sort of place where everybody encourages and supports each other.

"Although we have high standards and high expectations, and a strict uniform code, they are not to be interpreted as being elitist."

Altogether there are 337 pupils at the school, and the three new classrooms currently taking shape will eventually mean it can take about 50 more youngsters, feeding through from the infants upwards.

"These classrooms will help to take the pressure off the others and mean we can reduce the class sizes," said Mr Minnican.

Class sizes are being reduced in all infant classes, and extra spaces have been made available for four to seven-year-olds, where infant classes currently have fewer than 25 each.

Many children of course come from the area immediately surrounding the school, which is near Ipswich town centre in Portman Road – but others come from a wider area.

"We have a wide range of people coming here, so they could live in any part of Ipswich," said Mr Minnican.

He stressed that the school is inclusive and welcoming, and not just aimed at Christian children but also at members of other faiths. Children come from a wide range of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

"We do have Muslim families who want to bring their children here. One Muslim father said: 'I would rather bring my child to a school where you understand what faith is than to a school that doesn't understand what faith is'," said the headteacher.

Some parents with no religious beliefs are nevertheless keen to send their children to a church school because they want them to learn about Christianity and decide for themselves.

"One father told me he is not a Christian, but he wants his child to have the education he can't give him so he can make up his own mind," said Mr Minnican.

"We have children of various faiths and no faiths and we are certainly not in the business of brainwashing.

"We do teach children what we believe because we are Christians, but we teach them about other main faiths of the world, so we teach them about Muslims, Sikhs and Judaism. They are taught to have respect and to value other faiths."

Staff have visited a synagogue in London and the London Mosque to have talks from the staff there, helping to deepen their understanding of other faiths.

Anti-racism is very important, and the school has links with the Caribbean Association.

It has also just gained funding from the New Opportunities Fund to set up Saturday schools, in a partnership with four other schools and Suffolk Community Education.

Classes will be available to any pupil but specifically targeted towards raising the achievements of children from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, the school has strong links with nearby St Matthew's Church. Pupils have just held their harvest festival there, and Christmas and Easter services are also held in the church.

Youngsters brought in a whole array of food gifts for the harvest service, which were later packed up into parcels for elderly people in the community.

The children themselves went, together with their mums and dads, to deliver parcels to some elderly people known to their families, while the Salvation Army delivered other harvest gifts.

However, the atmosphere of faith in the school is not just about religious services. It is a whole ethos.

"On a spiritual level, we really do believe that it isn't just us doing a job, but that God is working through us," said Mr Minnican.

"We understand what faith is and feel comfortable with what we believe is right and wrong. It's a school which focuses on good relationships and positive attitudes."

Mr Minnican added: "I'm sure the majority of primary schools do all these things and we don't want to say we are better."

Faith has also helped in the school's response to the horror of the American terrorist attacks.

"With year five and six children we have tried to talk about it in a low-key way, about praying for the people involved, and we had the three-minute silence in the school."

The school gains strong support from the community, with parents coming in to help with activities and listen to reading.

Ex-pupils also like to stay in touch – on the day I visited, one boy was paying a return visit because his high school was closed for a staff training day.

"We run family discos, not so much for fundraising but really to get to know each other," said the headteacher. "Steve Springett of Amber Radio is one of our parents and he does the disco."

Other activities include visits from theatre companies. "Last week the Wolsey Theatre did a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream – the pupils were totally immersed in it," said Mr Minnican.

"To get Shakespeare across to junior-age children is difficult, but it was great. Saltmine Theatre, a Christian theatre group, is also paying a visit."

Football is very popular and a new fitness activities club is being set up. And, of course, there will also be a whole range of Christmas activities.

One unusual project is a link between St Matthew's and schools in France, Spain and Italy, through a scheme funded by the European Union.

Staff members have visited the other schools, looking at how their methods and approaches differ, and children have exchanged work and photographs.

At a time when schools are struggling both locally and nationally to attract and keep teachers, St Matthew's has a full staff, and Mr Minnican said morale appeared to be good.

"It's a really lovely place to be. When you walk round the school you can see that the children just love being here, and the teachers are happy too."

WEBLINK:

To visit St Matthew's Primary School's home page, go to:

http://atschool.eduweb.co.uk/stmatthews.suffolk

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