Reasons to be cheerful

Huddersfield's Greenhead College is not only outstanding academically - more than 30 pupils a year get into Oxbridge - but also strong in the visual and performing arts, says Richard Garner
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It's hard to know where to start when highlighting the strengths of Greenhead sixth-form college, one of the first such colleges to be established in 1973. Teaching standards in eight of its key subject areas have been described as outstanding by inspectors in one of the best reports ever given to an institution.

It's hard to know where to start when highlighting the strengths of Greenhead sixth-form college, one of the first such colleges to be established in 1973. Teaching standards in eight of its key subject areas have been described as outstanding by inspectors in one of the best reports ever given to an institution.

In the visual and performing arts, for instance, Greenhead is described as "enthusiastic and often inspiring - encouraging students to develop very good skills in art, music and drama". Needless to say, its performances of the musical Grease before Christmas were a sell-out for a whole week, and last year it was the same for Les Misérables.

The corridors are packed as students flit from lesson to lesson. To an outsider, the 1,800-pupil college in Huddersfield can appear like any other state education institution cramped for space, where pupils always seem to be in a hurry, not one that year after year produces the most astonishing A-level results.

Last summer, the 800 or so pupils who sat the exam notched up an average point score of 419.1. That means that each student is achieving more than three grade As. The past two years have seen Greenhead outscoring every sixth-form college and comprehensive school in the country. More than 30 youngsters a year end up at either Oxford or Cambridge. Yet Greenhead does not push students to apply to Oxbridge. "After Hills Road in Cambridge (a sixth-form college that has the advantage of being just down the road from the university), I think we're the college with the second highest number going to Oxbridge," says Martin Rostron, Greenhead's principal.

Alex Hirst, 17, who is studying French, Spanish and English literature, put Cambridge down as one of six university options. "I probably wouldn't have thought of listing it before coming here," he says. Aishwarya Prasad, also aged 17, who is studying chemistry, biology, maths and medicine, adds: "The staff are more approachable here than where I was at school before. It helps. There is a much better student/staff relationship here."

The college has built up such a great reputation that it is virtually having to turn away one student for every one it takes in. Last year, there were 1,700 pupils for 900 places. It also attracts students from local independent schools - on the basis, presumably, that if you can get just as good or even better A-level results from an institution that you do not have to pay for, it seems a good idea to go down that road. "We're seriously oversubscribed," says Mr Rostron.

The college's success is down to its teaching staff, he says. They are paid more than their colleagues at other state schools through clever use of responsibility allowances and bonuses. But the quality of the teachers cannot be entirely attributed to money. Tutors keep a close track of students' progress. Classes are suspended for a whole day every term so that students can have an interview with their tutor and discuss the progress they are making.

Greenhead has also introduced innovative revision techniques. Its sociology department, for example, placed a load of rubber ducks in a children's paddling pool. Each rubber duck contained a question for students to answer when they pulled it out of the pool. The teachers hoped that this made for a memorable occasion which would help students to remember the answers in future. "It is just about keeping learning fun," says Mr Rostron.

Greenhead has a strict admissions policy. Every student from its feeder 11-16 secondary schools in Huddersfield is guaranteed a place if they get at least five C-grade passes. That accounts for around 60 per cent of the intake. Then the college permits applications from further afield. "Our detractors say that we just select the best," says Mr Rostron. "It's not true. We do take in students of all abilities." Greenhead's decision to take local youngsters with five A*- to C-grade passes compares with some colleges who will only admit those with B-grade passes at GCSE, he argues.

"We also get added value out of our pupils. If somebody comes in with five average C-grade passes, in a lot of schools they'll say, we'll see if we can get you through to two Es at A-level. Whereas we're looking for two Cs and a D, and we set that as a target," he says. More often than not, the college succeeds.

Greenhead's latest inspection report declared teaching in seven of its main subject areas to be outstanding. Indeed, last May, when the report was published, it was the only institution in the country not to have a single lesson declared unsatisfactory. Of the 2,202 A-level scripts handed in by college candidates last summer, 43.1 per cent achieved A grades, 69.3 per cent As or Bs, and only 10 were classified as Us, in other words, failed.

When asked about their first impressions of the college, pupils who had come from state schools cited the smaller teaching groups of 18 or 19 - compared with the classes of 30 that they had come from. Those from private schools said that they were overwhelmed by the crush in the corridors.

Greenhead College makes a mockery of the attempts by both Labour and the Conservatives to promise parents more choice - and allow successful schools and colleges to expand to meet the demand for places. "It would be very difficult to expand on a site like ours," says Mr Rostron. "We're very cramped for space. We just have a small hockey field at the back."

One satisfied parent in particular is Barry Sheerman, the local Labour MP and chairman of the Commons education select committee. Two of his children attended Greenhead and moved on to Bristol and Edinburgh universities respectively. "I think it is a splendid college," he says. "It has had fantastic leadership that is absolutely determined to drive the performance of the college up. It is a very busy place but there are also some very nice areas in the college where pupils can be more contemplative."

When you have a college like that in the area - and the other sixth-form college, New College, also received a fantastic Ofsted report - it's not surprising that parents decide that they no longer want to pay for sixth-form education, Sheerman adds.

For Mr Rostron, however, sixth-form colleges have not been given enough credit for their performance by ministers in the past few years. For example, the Government's five-year plan talks of allowing more schools to open sixth-forms, when research shows that larger institutions such as sixth-form colleges, which can offer a bigger breadth of curriculum, produce better A-level results.

The tide may be beginning to turn, however. Greenhead has been awarded beacon status - which means that it is responsible for passing good practice on to other institutions. And Dr Kim Howells, the new minister for further and higher education, has embarked on a programme of visits to sixth-form colleges.

If Howells goes to Huddersfield, he will find it hard to quarrel with the boast that the town can offer youngsters one of the best opportunities - if not the best - in the country to pass their A-levels with distinction.