Criticism inspires comprehensive success

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The Independent Online
"Excellence for Everyone" is the slogan at the Northicote School in Wolverhampton. The staff at England's first comprehensive to be officially failed by schools inspectors are nothing if not ambitious.

Yesterday the efforts of the school, where poor buildings, litter, vandalism and broken windows were found to put both education and health at risk, have paid off.

Pupils were called to special assemblies to be told that education ministers had given their school a clean bill of health. And that was not all: league tables published today show that its GCSE scores have almost trebled since 1991.

When inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted, visited Northicote in November 1993 its head teacher had been in the job just six weeks and its chairman of governors, Fred Preston, was also new.

Instead of greeting the judgement with anger and resentment, as some schools have, they welcomed the findings and viewed them as a helpful pointer to the way ahead.

"Our view was that we were going to become one of the best schools in Wolverhampton, even the best. Now the school is a different place," Mr Preston said.

Yesterday he addressed three gatherings of delighted pupils. The atmosphere was much warmer than three years ago, he said, and there was a "buzz" about the school.

In 1991, just 8 per cent of Northicote's pupils gained five or more A- C grades at GCSE. This year the figure had risen to 23 per cent, a respectable score for an urban comprehensive. The proportion staying on at 16 multiplied almost five-fold from 8 per cent last year to 38 per cent this year.

In an attempt to improve the school, staff and governors rewrote the timetable so that pupils spent more time studying the subjects which Northicote did best. Modern languages and English were given a boost, while music and humanities were cut back. Four members of staff took voluntary redundancy.

At the same time, the school's finances and management were overhauled. A decaying music wing and dining hall were pulled down, and the site was cleaned up.

When the Ofsted inspectors returned, they found effective leadership, good behaviour, a much-improved site and teaching which was satisfactory or better in three-quarters of lessons.

"The school is an orderly community; it is now a welcoming place where adults and pupils treat each other with mutual respect," they commented.

Yesterday the schools minister, Robin Squire, praised the hard work of its staff and governors.

"Northicote's success provides a challenge to all other schools requiring special measures to pull together and ensure that their pupils get the education they deserve," he said.

An adult literacy scheme run by the school has been declared to be probably the best in the country, but Mr Preston says progress must continue. Future projects will include an upgrade of the sports facilities and further efforts to improve exam performance.

"You never stop, do you? There's always some way you can get better," he said.