How the top comprehensive does it

Longer days and lessons, motivated teachers and pupils and a climate of success have all helped to put Thomas Telford School at the top of the league tables for GCSE results. It comes within a whisker of Eton's performance, despite taking children of all abilities.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With 12 top-grade GCSEs, all taken a year early, Ria Johnson could be the product of a leading grammar or public school. She moved up a year to gain 10 coveted A*s and two As and is now studying physics, chemistry, maths and further maths A-level, with her eye on studying astrophysics at university. Ria praises her school's atmosphere of quiet work, its expectation of success, and the help and attention of dedicated teachers. But her school is not a hot-house grammar, picking the cream of the local talent. It is England's best comprehensive. Thomas Telford School is no ordinary comp: 99 per cent of students get at least five good GCSEs and they racked up a points score within a whisker of Eton's. Most children take 12 GCSEs, and many take their exams a year or two early. Some 16-year-olds are studying A-levels, while there have been 11-year-olds with A*s in French and 13-year-olds with A*s in maths. Thomas Telford was one of the pioneering city technology colleges, (CTCs) opened during the Eighties by the

With 12 top-grade GCSEs, all taken a year early, Ria Johnson could be the product of a leading grammar or public school. She moved up a year to gain 10 coveted A*s and two As and is now studying physics, chemistry, maths and further maths A-level, with her eye on studying astrophysics at university. Ria praises her school's atmosphere of quiet work, its expectation of success, and the help and attention of dedicated teachers. But her school is not a hot-house grammar, picking the cream of the local talent. It is England's best comprehensive. Thomas Telford School is no ordinary comp: 99 per cent of students get at least five good GCSEs and they racked up a points score within a whisker of Eton's. Most children take 12 GCSEs, and many take their exams a year or two early. Some 16-year-olds are studying A-levels, while there have been 11-year-olds with A*s in French and 13-year-olds with A*s in maths. Thomas Telford was one of the pioneering city technology colleges, (CTCs) opened during the Eighties by the Conservatives to revitalise the inner cities. The school day is a far cry from the 9am to 4pm grind. Thomas Telford, with its motto "Quality Through Co-operation", opens at 7.30am, lessons start at 8.15am and the school closes at 6pm. The result is a 35-hour teaching week, a third longer than the average 23.5 hours most children spend in class. Lessons are three hours long - with two a day - rather than the hour-long sessions in most parts of British education. Parents get 10 reports a year - every three-and-a-half weeks - which invite them to see any of their child's teachers. It is that intensity of contact with parents which staff say lies behind the school's success. Ria left her first secondary school, a comprehensive near her home in Telford, when she was 13. She said: "I was really amazed at how quiet and how geared towards working the school was compared with my previous school. The old school was quite noisy. There were always lots of things going on and teachers were shouting. Here there is lots of support and encouragement. There are 10 reports a year so your parents get to see how you are doing. If there's a problem you get to sort it out without waiting." Every week Kevin Satchwell, the head teacher, meets senior teachers and asks for a list of children not doing their best. Late homework, an essay not up to the usual standard or persistent lateness for lessons could all land a youngster on the "rapid response" list. Within 24 hours, the head will have called in the child's parents. "We involve the parents over everything," said Mr Satchwell, 48. "I'm only saying this as a dad myself. I have an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. I want to know whether the teachers have concerns over my own kids. One of the things that teenagers are very good at is creating a vacuum between their parents and teachers. We have to break that down. "There are no punitive measures at this school. There are no punishments such as detention. The thing that has the biggest influence is getting mum and dad in to talk." Sixth former Victoria Wylde said: "It's a working atmosphere. You get used to the long days, but it is totally different to most schools. You are encouraged, and people are all pleased if you do well." Victoria gets the coach to school from Wolverhampton. Her parents did not go to university, her father is the manager of a restaurant while her mother does not work, but their daughter is set on a science degree. Jonathan Sidaway, 16, said: "From the start, they tell you that you are privileged to be a part of Thomas Telford School. There's a high demand for places at this school. People know they are very privileged here, so the teachers can make you work hard." Parents are encouraged to help their children with reading, if they have special needs, or to get involved in homework. All parents are invited to open days to show them how to access lesson plans, work and help through the school's Internet site. The school's entire curriculum, planned a year in advance, is posted on the World Wide Web, complete with links to a wealth of sites with help and advice. The next development will be posting video clips of lessons on the site, so children can re-live sections they did not grasp at school. Interactive blackboards will allow teachers to post their lesson notes on the Net to give more help. Thomas Telford was created as the eighth city technology college on a purpose-built site. Its success is another milestone in the rise and rise of specialist schools. Another CTC, Brooke Weston in Corby, Northamptonshire, topped the league for GCSE points points score. Yesterday ministers praised the improvement of specialist schools, which raised the proportion of children getting five good GCSEs by more than twice the rate in their non-specialist counterparts. Money is part of the answer. As a specialist school, Thomas Telford benefits from about £100 extra per pupil, and raises a similar sum from its commercial sponsors, the building giant Tarmac and the Mercers' Company of the City of London. It is hugely over-subscribed, with 1,200 children chasing 168 places on offer next September. But, said Mr Satchwell, it's remained a comprehensive. Applicants take a non-verbal reasoning test and are graded into nine ability bands from which the school selects a mixed intake. "There is nothing that goes on at this school which cannot be transferred to any school," he added. But there is a difference. Thomas Telford has pioneered performance-related pay (PRP) of a type similar to proposals being pushed forward for the whole of the teaching profession. The school has had non-standard contracts and PRP since it opened nine years ago. Departments are set annual exam targets, and staff stand to gain bonuses of up to 10 per cent of salary each September if they are met. But while staff teach more hours than their counterparts elsewhere, they enjoy two half-days a week out of class to plan and develop lessons. Teachers who run clubs or sports teams out of hours are paid overtime, unlike their counterparts in the vast majority of state schools. Despite the school's second year as Britain's top performing comprehensive, Mr Satchwell is still looking towards his historic goal. "We want to get to 100 per cent in GCSEs," he said "No-one's ever got to 100 per cent in a comprehensive. We're getting to the point where everybody who comes here could get five GCSEs at the higher grades, [A* to Cs] whether they have special needs, or they're high-flyers. "That's the big aim."

Comments