Reversal of fortune due to teamwork

A new head and a belief in the communal values of the union leader after whom it was named has lifted Thomas Hepburn from bottom of the heap to one of the fastest improving schools, says Sarah Cassidy
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The Independent Online

A school that was once ranked as one of the worst schools in the country is celebrating academic success today after being named as one of the most improved secondary schools in England. Thomas Hepburn Community Comprehensive in Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne, achieved a 350 per cent rise in the proportion of students leaving the school with five good GCSE passes.

A school that was once ranked as one of the worst schools in the country is celebrating academic success today after being named as one of the most improved secondary schools in England. Thomas Hepburn Community Comprehensive in Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne, achieved a 350 per cent rise in the proportion of students leaving the school with five good GCSE passes.

Figures published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) today show that last summer 35 per cent of students achieved at least five A* to C grades at GCSE – up from just eight per cent in 1999. In fact, the improvement was even greater – the figures were later upgraded to 36 per cent after the school asked for some exam papers to be remarked. Although this is still below the national average that reached 51.5 per cent last summer, it is a remarkable achievement for a school in one of the deprived parts of Gateshead.

Malcolm Dawson, who became headteacher in January 1999, says the school's reversal of fortunes has been a team effort. "This is not a story about a new head turning everything around," he says."I do not hold with all that superhead lark. What we have done is build on what was here."

A comprehensive in a deprived area of South Tyneside, the school attributes some of its meteoric rise to its enthusiastic adoption of new vocational qualifications as well as its membership of the Government's Excellence in Cities programme, which provides extra funds for inner-city schools. Named after the founder of the first miners' trade union, Tommy Hepburn, who was a local man, the comprehensive aimed to adopt the values of its founder by encouraging pupils of all abilities to fulfil their potential and play a positive role in their community. Almost half of 15-and 16-years-olds take vocational courses in subjects including ICT, art and design, leisure and tourism and health and social care, alongside their conventional exams in GCSE English, maths and science.

"The vocational courses have a different style and more outside visits than traditional subjects," Mr Dawson says. "The new courses have had a very strong motivational effect on many students. This is post-industrial Tyneside. There is a strong vocational work ethic among local families and our students. Traditionally that had been heavy engineering but now with all the regeneration of the area there are fantastic work experience opportunities in many industries. This has chimed with what we are trying to do."

The school has also encouraged many students to take GCSE exams early to stretch bright youngsters and give them more confidence. "We want to say to them that they are clever youngsters and that they have a bright future ahead of them," he says. "Allowing them to get a GCSE at 14 sends an important message about what they can achieve."

The school has worked with its feeder primary schools to improve pupils' literacy. "We owe our feeder primary schools a tremendous debt of gratitude," says Mr Dawson. "Many of them have achieved really amazing improvements. The impact of these higher standards has not yet fully filtered through, but when the next generation of students comes through we expect the effect on future GCSE results to be even more apparent."

Meanwhile, an inner-city school once ranked as one of the worst comprehensives in the country was singled out for special praise as the most improved secondary school in England. The achievement of Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat School in Stepney, east London, is the more remarkable given its setting among the council estates and tenement blocks of Tower Hamlets. More than three quarters of the school's students are eligible for free school meals while more than half use English as a second language.

In 1992 just 3.3 per cent of the 150 pupils sitting GCSEs managed to get five good passes and the school was struggling to fill its places. Now the specialist language college is over-subscribed. Although a large number of students are drawn from the local mainly Bangladeshi community, youngsters come from all over London.

Last summer 69 per cent of GCSE candidates achieved this standard, compared with a national average of 51.5 per cent, according to today's figures.This is a stark contrast to 1999 when 22 per cent of pupils left with this number of qualifications. However, the school believes that last summer will be even better once the figures have been double-checked by the DfES.

The astonishing rise of 47 percentage points saw the school singled out for special praise after coming top in the rankings of sustained improvement in GCSE exams. Haydn Evans, the head of the 1,050 pupil school, believes that its status as a specialist language college has contributed to its success.

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