How Britain’s happiest school lit up Christmas: Youngsters from one of UK’s most deprived towns have melted hearts by releasing charity single and spreading festive cheer in care homes and nurseries
- Flakefleet Primary School has become surprise factor in UK’s Christmas cheer
- It was crowned the ‘happiest primary school in the country’ last month
- Pupils also have a single in the charts raising money for Alzheimer’s Society
- They have met Chris Evans, been on the One Show, Sky News and ITN
Flakefleet Primary School in Fleetwood, just north of Blackpool, is the surprise epicentre of this year’s Christmas cheer.
Not just because of the classrooms festooned with tinsel and paper chains, the giant baubled Christmas tree, the vast bobbing inflatable Father Christmas in the main reception and the festive jumpers worn by staff and children.
Nor even because of the hand-printed A4 signs pinned to every other door — ‘Welcome to the happiest school in the country!’
The reason is because, despite this being a deprived area where unemployment is worryingly high and around 65 per cent of the 471 pupils are entitled to free school meals, everyone here — and I do mean everyone — seems properly happy.
Children at the UK’s ‘happiest primary school’ Flakefleet in Fleetwood, Lancashire, have been praised for releasing a charity single to help the elderly. Pictured are pupils with headteacher Dave McPartlin, centre
Last month, the school was crowned happiest primary school in Britain as part of the National Happiness Awards, for goodness’ sake.
When I meet them, they are also buzzing, fizzing almost, from the excitement of having their first single, Light Up (in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society), in the UK Charts.
In recent weeks, dressed as elves, draped in fairy lights and led by their astonishingly energetic head Dave McPartlin, 40, they’ve appeared on The One Show, Sky News, ITN and in newspapers and blogs around the world.
They’ve driven hundreds of miles through the night to London to meet Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans as he arrived outside the BBC studio at 5.45am, and were invited on to his show.
They’ve sung in schools, care homes and nurseries and assured everyone, everywhere they go, that all they really want for Christmas is ‘to make memories’, to spend time with families and to spread some good in the world.
‘Time and memories, that’s what really matters,’ says Grace, ten.
So they’d be forgiven for being a teeny bit downcast to have been beaten to the top spot yesterday by a song about sausage rolls, in aid of food banks, with their own single coming up 64th. But not a bit of it.
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‘It doesn’t matter if we don’t make No. 1. Our school’s attitude is not about getting somewhere, it’s about trying to get there,’ explains Ruby, ten, from Year 6.
Abbie, also ten, agrees: ‘We tried our hardest and it was fun. We did all we could. You have to take the risk or you lose the chance. So we did.’
Such depth of character and stoicism beyond their years.
Flakefleet’s big push to top the Christmas pop chart began just four weeks ago.
‘Staff thought I’d lost the plot when I said, ‘Let’s go for the Christmas No. 1!’ says head Mr McPartlin. So he put up a new school Facebook page, ‘Flakefleet For Christmas No. 1’, and that was that.
He is not the sort to let lack of cash, or any relevant experience, or contacts in the music business, or indeed any knowledge of music at all, to get in the way.
‘On reflection, it would have been better if we’d started a couple of weeks earlier,’ he says.
The song was written by pupils and teachers along with couple of producers who were friends of friends and helped out for nothing. The recording — featuring all 471 children — took place in a studio lent to the school.
Staff and children from the school have gained media coverage after doorstepping Chris Evans at BBC Radio 2 and were then invited on his show, pictured
The accompanying video — featuring the pupils and residents of Fleetwood Hall Care Home laughing, hugging, whizzing about in wheelchairs and learning to floss-dance on Blackpool promenade — was shot entirely on Mr McPartlin’s iPhone and edited on his home computer one evening.
I defy anyone to watch it without laughing, crying and generally feeling happier.
There was something so joyful, so uplifting, so happily infectious about Flakefleet’s offering that, despite the odds, it entered the midweek charts at No. 15 last week.
‘No. 15! It’s crazy,’ says Mr McPartlin. ‘It’s mad. But it just shows that you can do anything if you try. Anything at all. It didn’t even cost a penny.’
Everything necessary to record the song and put this wonderful school on the map has been donated.
A local bus company provided transport so the children could zip all over the country to perform.
‘Some children had never been to London, so it seemed a shame not to show them around,’ says Mr McPartlin.
Fleetwood Town Football Club have been unfailingly supportive. Blackpool Winter Gardens were lent free of charge for Light Up’s official launch. Smart posters, flyers, logo’d T-shirts and sweatshirts have all been given — leaving a whole school room dedicated to publicity.
On Thursday lunchtime, I watched a light aircraft trail a jaunty ‘Flakefleet For Christmas No. 1’ banner across the grey skies.
‘Fleetwood is a small place, but that’s the only small thing about it,’ the head says.
Sadly, no one can donate hours in the day for Mr McPartlin, who has three young children, a long-suffering fiancee Alex (who’s been roped in to help with publicity) and hasn’t done a jot of Christmas shopping.
‘The house is a bombsite, we’re eating terrible food and we haven’t watched telly for a month!’ he says. ‘I would dearly love some sleep. I am absolutely exhausted!’
But all that, too, bounced off Mr McPartlin as he drove down the M6 to London and back — first with a carload, and later busloads, of kids dressed as singing elves, giving them their first taste of fame. ‘I’m loving every minute,’ he says. ‘Our school motto has even been changed to “Dare to Dream”.
‘It used to be “everyone is a learner and every experience is a learning opportunity”. But you have to dream. You have to follow your dreams. The children are already walking taller and prouder. If you look after confidence, resilience and perseverance, the rest will follow.’
Mr McPartlin has never been the sort of chap to do things by halves.
When Prince Harry and Meghan married in May, the school put on their own mock Royal Wedding.
In the summer, Mr McPartlin and his 80-strong staff put on FlakeFest to celebrate the school’s singers, dancers and performers.
The children, pictured recording, say they were not disappointed the single reached no.64 in the charts and added they just wanted to ‘make memories’
‘It shouldn’t just be about classroom learning’ is his philosophy.
The ‘happiest school’ accolade was a result of staff routinely going far, far beyond the boundaries of either their job description or the national curriculum.
Indeed, sometimes they take pupils’ washing home to do themselves. They provide extra food, where necessary, and supplement missing birthday and Christmas presents — all with the utmost discretion, of course.
‘We don’t want to make a song and dance of it,’ he says. ‘It’s just about providing a supportive environment, where our kids can stand a bit taller, a bit prouder. Happy learners have got to be better learners.’
The staff posted a video called ‘What teachers do when the kids go home’ — showing them racing about the corridors on their twirly-whirly teacher chairs, playing in the nursery sandpit, climbing trees, having wheelbarrow races and generally goofing about.
No wonder the walls are plastered with thank-you notes from grateful parents, eulogising about the brilliant school.
The links with Fleetwood Hall Care Home were forged in 2016. There are joint arts and crafts sessions with the school nursery, residents are invited to major school events and, every week, the older children visit. ‘We love it,’ says one of the Year 6 girls. ‘We get to dance and laugh. They are so happy when we arrive. We play games, we chat. We dance.’
The impact on the residents is palpable. ‘They’re wonderful children,’ says Dorothy Billington, who is 93 and features on the video. ‘They listen to you. They chat to you. They love you for what you are. Even if you’re old and tired.’ The idea for the song came at the end of the Royal Wedding extravaganza.
‘We went back to the staff room and we were giddy with excitement and thought, right, what can we do next?
Some might have thought that aiming for a Christmas No. 1 — an achievement most professional pop groups never manage — was a touch ambitious. But, naturally, not Mr McPartlin. ‘I want children to know they can do anything if they throw themselves at and commit to it,’ he says.
‘I want them to know they might knock on 1,000 closed doors but that the 1,001st could give them their special break.’
He has wanted to be a head teacher since he was a boy. After a childhood in a happy working-class home in Hartlepool, he studied at Durham University. He is exactly the sort of head that every school wants and then worries they’ll manage to keep.
Flakefleet is his second headship. He has already helped turn a Church of England primary near Morecambe, Lancashire, from an Ofsted Good to an Outstanding.
When he visited Flakefleet, he felt a yearning. ‘I looked around and thought: I want to be your head. Your leader,’ he says simply.
After three years, he has already made a huge impact. Not just on the Ofsted results —which are rocketing — but on the children, staff and wider community.
Scenes in the video (seen) show the youngsters dancing with residents at the care home in Lancashire as they enjoy day out
Flakefleet Primary School went viral when pupils staged their own version of Harry and Meghans Royal wedding earlier this year
‘I can’t think of a time when I’ve gone home and complained about work the whole time I’ve been here,’ he says. ‘I love our kids. I want them to do well. I really love them.’
The kids, meanwhile, are an absolute delight — boisterous and bouncy, as they should be, but also polite and courteous.
Two blonde girls approach me unbidden, to say: ‘I hope you’re having a very nice day!’ and, ‘I hope you like our school.’
They all adore their head.
‘He cries more than us!’ says one of the Year 6 boys.
‘And he drinks A LOT of coffee but he’s taught us not to stop and think about things too much before we do them — and just go for it,’ says another. ‘He’s the best head in the world and he’s ours.’
Even more surprising, they do, genuinely, appear to believe in his vision.
‘Christmas is about family,’ says a boy called Jack.
‘For Christmas, I’d like to be able to get along with my brother better,’ says Abbey. ‘We argue all the time.’
Sadly, the competition to be Christmas No. 1 was always rather strong.
There were rival offerings from global superstars Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson and the inevitable X Factor winner. Also, a host of home-grown charitable songs, including a clutch of handsome firemen, singing for injured firefighters, and a group of organ transplant recipients with a song called Tomorrow.
And the favourite: a self-styled ‘dad blogger’ from Nottingham singing a comedy ode to sausage rolls in a parody of Starship’s hit We Built This City, raising money for the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.
So, no, Flakefleet Primary didn’t make it to No. 1. But they have been invited on to next year’s Britain’s Got Talent. And what they did was so much more important. They showed us how to care, to love, to live . . . and to dare to dream.
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