Schools: The Angley effect: how they woke up a sleepy rural school

What happens when a school decides to 'parent' its GCSE year? It gets better results. Hilary Wilce visits one of the country's most improved schools

It's the time of year when exam candidates start to glance at the calendar in alarm, but at Angley School in Cranbrook, Kent, there is likely to be little such last-minute panic. From the moment its 120 GCSE students stepped into year 11, they have been groomed and trained for their exams - fed, nurtured, pushed, cajoled, supported - with all the care that a racing stable might lavish on its prize runners.

Everywhere they look, they are reminded what lies ahead. A notice-board counts down the days to exams (59 at the end of January). Predicted grades - every student, every subject - are pinned up in the corridor each month. Exam questions are practised. Letters go home. Absentees are chased up. After-school clubs offer help in individual subjects. Struggling students are targeted for support. Tutor groups compete. Effort is named and acclaimed. Homilies shout from classroom walls:

"WELCOME TO THE SUCCESS ZONE!"

"THREE STUDENTS GOT 'A' GRADES IN 1997. HOW MANY WILL IN 1998? YOU HAVE A LOT TO LIVE UP TO!"

The pressure is high, the culture competitive, the drive towards achievement relentless - and the students appear to thrive on it.

"We all know what we have to do, but it's still a good atmosphere," says Rachel Evans, 15. "We have a laugh. They treat us like adults."

Yet four years ago, this grant-maintained school deep in the Weald of Kent was better known for its on-site farm and its emphasis on rural science than for its high-voltage success culture. "When I came here there was under-achievement at every level," says the headteacher, Stephanie Bedford. "My agenda was to release that potential."

And she has. Last year Angley came fourth in a table of the most improved state schools in the country, almost doubling the percentage of students getting five A to Cs, from 30 per cent to 52 per cent - a huge achievement in itself, but spectacular given that a fifth of the students depart after year eight for the adjacent 13-plus grammar school, leaving this school with an ability range more akin to that of an old-style secondary modern than a normal comprehensive. This creaming-off had left the school a caring but sleepy place when Stephanie Bedford arrived, hot from the hard-edged results culture of a Croydon city technology college and determined to create a school where everyone could - and would - succeed.

A whirlwind of changes later, this atmosphere permeates the school, coming to a climax in the crucial year 11, where every trick in the book is used to get the best out of students, including selecting exam boards to give them the best possible stab at a subject, getting through coursework early to spread the pressure, using registration time as additional "time on task" each week, keeping in close touch with parents, and, most particularly, using predictive data to give the school a clear picture of what to demand of its students, and to let students know what they should expect of themselves.

The school buys in an appraisal system from Durham University, known as Yellis ("year 11 information service") which allows it to predict GCSE performance on the basis of a test given to students at the beginning of year 10. The system also allows it to assess how subjects are performing against each other, and to pinpoint students falling below target. Yellis is used by several hundred schools in Britain, but Ofsted, which recently inspected Angley, praised the detailed way the school uses this data to inform curriculum planning.

"Education shouldn't be about probabilities," says the deputy headteacher, Richard Hart, sitting among a welter of statistics. "Something like this puts it all on the table. When you get a student coming along saying, 'Mr Jones doesn't like me, he's just picking on me', or whatever, we can say, 'Well, Kelly, your target minimum grade in this subject is a B, and your essay was a D, so what you need to do is take ownership of this gap, and decide what you're going to do about it'."

When the data threw up more than 30 students who were falling below target, the school asked them to choose a "support teacher" to help keep them on track - an offer which all but a few accepted. When the school realised that, like many schools, it had a problem with boys' attainment, it held a boys-only year 11 assembly to drum home the problem - and its solutions.

Some students have subject-specific contracts to keep them in line. All do masses of exam practice, and all have had the benefit of the wisdom of Ivan Town, a study skills expert, bought in for three days' consultation, "which costs a fortune," says Paul Hart, "but shows them how much we value them. Self-esteem is an important part of the package."

But surely this competitive striving has a downside, demoralising those at the bottom of the pile? No, says Stephanie Bedford. "Because we are about supporting students at every level - and everyone can get an A for effort."

The school is meticulous about lavishing praise on achievement of all kinds, and is especially proud that last year it pulled up its bottom grades so much that 98 per cent of students achieved five GCSEs at grades A-G.

Andrew Barnard, a parent governor whose son is taking 10 GCSEs this summer, points to the school's drama productions, sports programmes and adventure trips as signs "that it's not just a drive for exam success", while Amanda Manwaring, whose daughter is also taking 10 subjects, "can't fault their commitment and communication. They held an evening for year 11 pupils and parents, all about how they were aiming high for GCSE, and saying in effect, 'Come on, we can do it, we're going to go for it,' which gave everyone a lift. They were motivating us as well as the pupils."

Of course, the proof is always in the pudding, and last year's spectacular results will be a hard act to follow. However, Iain Butler, year 11 co- ordinator, is positive that the school's strategies will have an effect.

"At very least we'll be able to say at the end of it that we worked damn hard to give them every chance, that we tried everything we could think of to help them be successful, that there was nothing more we could have done to help them do their best. And if we don't get the best results we possibly could - well then, next year we'll just have to go back and reappraise it."

And the parents like it...

"Our daughter did her GCSEs last year and we were extremely pleased. She got an A*, three As and five Bs. She wanted to do well, the school wanted her to do well, and we wanted her to do well. She was our third child to go through the school and we'd always felt that expectations weren't high enough, although it's not always easy to say that as a parent, and it has always been difficult for the school because it loses so many pupils to the grammar school.

"Our middle child had some problems with motivation and learning, and it's so frustrating when you see a child with potential not doing as well as he could. But if the school's not making them work, you can't make them work at home. He didn't even seem to know when his exams were; if someone had told him, he hadn't written it down.

"Last year, everything was organised. They kept them totally focused. Sarah had her dates months in advance, in writing. They gave them their modular dates, and revision plans, and they had a study skills day and lots of past paper practice, and information about the exam boards. Sarah knew exactly what was expected of her. Everything she did - her coursework, her classwork - was marked to GCSE standard, so she knew how she was doing, and there were samples of work up for them to read, so they could see what makes the difference between an A-grade essay, a B-grade, and a C.

"I must admit I had my doubts about all the competition at first, but I can see that done in the right way it helps everyone to succeed, just as success pushes everyone up. Also, teachers now know what students can achieve, and I really believe teacher expectation is one of the most significant facts in education. Margaret Leeds, governor and parent of a former pupil

What the students say

"I've got a supporter, because I was below my target minimum grades in maths and business studies. I didn't understand the work, so I was talking in class and my work was suffering. But I thought I was doing OK. I thought it was just a block and I'd get over it, but they said I needed a bit of help. I see him at lunch times, usually once a week, and I go through my deadlines and he helps me plan my work out. I didn't want to do it at first, but he does keep me on track." Rachel Evans, 15

"The teachers are all really helpful. They'll do anything we need. If we're having problems with a test or anything, they'll always say, 'Do you want to come and see me about it?' I think everyone understands that they have to try to do their best." Corinne Davies, 16

"They've just changed morning registration. It used to be just talking, but now we have to sit in alphabetical order and do revision or work. We do weekly tests, and go through possible exam questions, but there isn't too much pressure. The lessons are relaxed, and they try to make them interesting. And the competition makes things more interesting, too. All your certificates go into your record of achievement, so you can show them to employers." Alex Robles, 16

"I wasn't picked to have a supporter, but I felt I needed someone to push me. I had a big piece of geography coursework to hand in and I didn't know where to start. He helped me see what I should be doing, that I should be collecting up the information this week, and writing it the next. I can go to him and tell him anything, and I know it won't go any further, unless I want it to. He says he can tell I'm much more confident about my work than I used to be." Claire Beard, 15

"We had an assembly where they told us why boys do so badly. They said it's laziness, and lack of motivation. It's probably true in most cases. I usually leave everything to the last minute." Ben Leah, 16

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