The school that rose to the Government's challenge

Inner-city schools with tough problems are being targeted in the Government's drive to improve standards. Diana Hinds looks at one school that is getting the right results
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The Independent Online

With a general election looming, the Government will be looking to claim all the educational successes it can from the last four years, to vindicate itself in the eyes of the electorate as the political party which really has put "education, education, education" high on the agenda.

With a general election looming, the Government will be looking to claim all the educational successes it can from the last four years, to vindicate itself in the eyes of the electorate as the political party which really has put "education, education, education" high on the agenda.

It can, perhaps, afford to feel reasonably pleased with its efforts in the primary sector, where infant classes are smaller and where the national literacy and numeracy strategies have, if nothing else, contributed to higher test scores (SATs). But these improvements at primary level have not yet been consolidated in the early years at secondary school. With the Government's educational focus now trained on secondary schools, ministers will be hoping to persuade voters that the secondary initiatives it has put in place more recently are indeed beginning to bear fruit.

Of these initiatives, Excellence in Cities, a two-year-old programme intended to drive up standards in inner-city schools, could be a possible show-case for the Government. The Excellence in Cities annual report, published last week, claimed that examination results in EiC areas are improving more quickly than others (with a rise of 2.3 percentage points in pupils obtaining five good GCSEs, compared with 1.3 in other areas), and that the numbers of pupils leaving school with no qualifications is falling twice as fast in EiC areas.

The programme comprises a raft of school improvement measures, including the appointment of learning mentors to help combat truancy, bullying, low self-esteem, and difficulties at home; the setting up of learning support units to improve pupil behaviour and self-discipline; special master classes to accelerate the skills of pupils identified by the school as either gifted or talented; and the establishment of city learning centres, to provide state-of-the-art computer facilities for staff and pupils borough-wide.

But how successful are these eye-catching initiatives in practice, and are these measures really enough to get the standards up in some of the country's more beleaguered secondary schools?

The experience of one Excellence in Cities school, Henry Compton School in south-west London, suggests that for these extra measures to have any beneficial effect, there must already be a tide of improvement and good management within the school, as well as the careful - and sometimes costly - appointment of members of staff of sufficiently high calibre to make the measures work.

When the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham opted into the Government's Excellence in Cities programme, Henry Compton School, a boys' 11-16 comprehensive in the borough, was already pulling itself up after a rather nasty few years. In 1996, with a falling roll of around 300 pupils, the school failed its Ofsted inspection, and was put on "Special Measures". An overhaul of staff ensued, with the appointment of a new head, John Hayes, in 1997; eighteen months later, with work progressing on pupil behaviour and the quality of lessons, the school was out of special measures. GCSE results have shot up from 7 per cent of pupils with five grades A*-C in 1996, to 15 per cent in 1999 and 34 per cent in 2000. With more than 500 pupils now on roll, John Hayes says the school's target is the national average in GCSE scores, currently around 49 per cent.

Walking around the school today, the visitor has no sense of the tension that, according to staff, dogged Henry Compton five or six years ago. The atmosphere is positive, and the clean, freshly-painted corridors and classrooms of the tall Victorian building carry the orderly hum of a school going about its business. The boys are dressed in black jackets and ties, and respond to visitors' questions with courtesy and interest.

But in the streets that immediately surround Henry Compton, the level of gentrification - with some houses fetching almost £500,000 - belies the fact that many of its pupils live in infinitely more disadvantaged circumstances a greater distance away. Sixty-five per cent of them qualify for free school meals. Some 43 different first languages are spoken in the school, and there is, too, a sizeable cohort of refugee and asylum-seeker children.

Appointing a learning mentor was one of the first of the Excellence in Cities initiatives that John Hayes put his mind to in 1999, "but the budget from central government was inadequate to pay someone of high calibre to do the job. So I waited until I could find enough money to subsidise the post."

The man he eventually chose was Earl Whiskey, who, highly trained and experienced in youth work, counselling and community involvement, joined the school last April.

"I know some schools have people of different calibre and experience as learning mentors, more like classroom assistants," says John Hayes, "but if I had to appoint these people - I wouldn't have. I wanted a manager, not just an operative."

Earl Whiskey works one-to-one with boys in school, as well as liaising out of school with families and social services. "Even though I work for the school, I think the boys don't see me as a teacher, but as someone who is there for them, a friend for them," he says.

"I wasn't coming to school very often," says James, 16, "but Earl talks to me and gives me confidence to come to school. He tells me to get on with it, otherwise I'm not going to get anywhere in life."

John Hayes spent over the odds when he employed Paul Dennett to head the learning support unit too. "I wanted someone who had a lot of charisma and wisdom, as well as being a very good teacher - to manage the unit dynamically, not just look after the children."

Boys may spend up to eight weeks working in this unit, individually or in small groups, until their behaviour is sufficiently improved for them to rejoin their class. "It is very intense, and can be very tough," says Paul Dennett. "And no, it doesn't always work - parents really need to be behind it, for it to succeed."

Extra funding for pupils identified by the school as "gifted" or "talented" is managed by the borough, with extra lessons and some residential courses provided (see box). Outside the school, on what was once a basketball court, foundations are being laid for a lavish City Learning Centre, which will be shared with other schools but will also, John Hayes believes, help to raise Henry Compton's profile.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says it is imperative not to judge these schools only in terms of their exam results. "There has to be a wider understanding that these schools fulfil a most important role in their local communities. Often they are the only institution holding the line against the breakdown of the inner-city community," he says.