'The children used to throw chairs at people out of the window': How a failing school was turned round – with a little help from the Royal Navy

St Luke's in Portsmouth hired a team of ex-sailors as pastoral support workers who patrolled the school sorting out problems

The school's motto – brought to the attention of its pupils daily – says it all: "Work hard, be nice and no excuses." It wasn't always so. Its principal, Dame Sharon Hollows, recalls trying to persuade a neighbouring school to use the school's swimming pool. "They said no," she said. "When I asked them why, they said that when they had used it in the past, the children used to throw chairs at them out of the third floor window and spit at them."

That was in the days of the former St Luke's Church of England school in Portsmouth. The school, which has become the Charter Academy, is viewed in national circles as an outstanding model for tackling the thorniest problem facing the UK's education system: how to address the poor performance of white working-class pupils.

The task facing Dame Sharon as the first head of the new academy five years ago was immense. Fourteen years ago, not a single pupil at the school achieved five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English. A decade ago, the school was languishing in the bottom three of national school league tables with only 3 per cent.

Today it can boast 68 per cent A* to Cs – making it the top performing school in the city and above average for the country. Dame Sharon reckons the results could have been even better had the school not gained a reputation for coping with pupils transferring schools, sometimes because of behaviour problems, or newly moved to the area. Just over half the age cohort in the GCSE year were new arrivals at the school during that year.

In Dame Sharon, ARK Schools, sponsors of the school, had found someone with a proven track record for turning schools round. She had previously worked in the East End of London as a primary school head, running the most improved school in the country, Calverton in Newham.

"I have to say it has been different to my experience in London," she said. "There I've always worked with schools with very diverse ethnic school intakes. This one is not – this is predominantly white working class. The challenges are different.

"I met so many families here who just didn't have any expectations for anything other than generation on generation of dependence on the state.

"I was shocked at the time. I think you tackle it by constantly telling the children and the parents they can do it – by constantly giving them examples of people who had [made it]."

She added: "I'm used to having to teach English to those who come from other countries but this was a big shock – there were children arriving in the secondary school with a reading age of four."

Brought up in the cotton and mining communities of Burnley, Lancashire, she was able to draw on her own childhood to help lift their aspirations. Both my parents left school at 14," she said. "If it hadn't been for education, I would not have been able to pursue this fantastic career. That's what I keep telling the children."

It starts, though, with discipline and attendance, she said, so one of her first acts on taking over at Charter – apart from ensuring the motto was printed on the front of the school building for all to see when they arrived – was to insist on the wearing of a school uniform.

She also hired a team of pastoral support workers – ex-Royal Navy personnel – who patrolled the school sorting out problems. "The Navy is a very valuable source of personnel," she said. "Most of them retire from the navy in their early forties."

If children did not turn up at school, a car was immediately despatched to their home to bring the recalcitrant pupils into school. If it did not find them on the first visit, the car went back again.

Staff also patrol the school gate before and after school to make sure the pupils arrive and leave in an orderly fashion. The senior management team look in on every classroom every day to ensure everything is all right – and staff wear radio ear-pieces and carry walkie-talkies so they can communicate any problems.

The next priority was to tackle performance – particularly in maths and English. Dame Sharon hired two primary school teachers to help the children with a reading age of four to catch up. Extra lessons were laid on – the school has a longer school day than most, with lessons continuing to 4pm, to include extra English and maths. Homework can also be done on the premises by those children whose home circumstances are too difficult for them to study.

As a result, some of the slowest readers are now achieving B and C grades at GCSE.

The school is planning its next venture – opening a sixth form in September for pupils who would previously have turned their backs on education at 16. It has steadily built up from just over 300 pupils to 460 in the past five years, and hopes to recruit 200 to the sixth form.

Naomi Carter, a vice-principal at the school who worked at St Luke's before the changes, said: "It has been a real privilege working for this school. In the olden days, the staff weren't challenged, the kids weren't challenged. Now it's made clear. If you're going to come here, you're going to work."

Bottom of the class

Concern over the educational performance of white working-class youths was raised in a number of publications last year. The education standards watchdog Ofsted revealed in a report last summer that only 26 per cent of white working-class boys from the UK obtained the holy grail of five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English, and only 35 per cent of girls. Black Afro-Caribbean boys and girls were the next lowest performers with 32 per cent and 48 per cent. "Five years ago, Bangladeshi and black African pupils were trailing their white British counterparts," it said. "Now Bangladeshi pupils outperform their white British peers and black African pupils perform at a similar level."

The report was followed by another from the Centre for Social Justice which said white working-class boys were in danger of becoming "an educational under-class".

That was followed by Tim Leunig, an adviser to the Lib Dem Schools Minister David Laws, saying that "being white" is now a problem in state schools and that more needed to be done to tackle the underachievement of the "dominant racial group" in schools if standards were to improve.

Few initiatives have so far targeted this group, though chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw describes their performance as "an unacceptable waste of human potential". He believes we need to tackle a climate of low expectations on the part of too many teachers – and, of course, pupils and their parents.

However, other state schools in a similar situation come to Dame Sharon Hollows to learn from her. "They are very keen to see what we've done," she said, The key, she is telling them, is to put and end to any conscious or subconscious thought along the lines of "What can you expect from these kids?".

Richard Garner

A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Morrissey pictured in 2013
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

Supply Teachers Needed in Bungay

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Year 6 Teacher

£111 - £163 per day + £111 - £163 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The posi...

Experienced Creche Assistant - Lambeth - September 2014

£64 - £69 per day + Competitive London rates of pay : Randstad Education Group...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star