The state school that scores 100 per cent

After Woodhead: Labour sees the way ahead in an institution with superb results as the departing Ofsted head earns a bleak appraisal
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The Independent Online

As the front doors glide open, a receptionist, one of several dressed in smart red uniforms, looks up and smiles. Yes, she says, Mr Satchwell is expecting us. Would we care to wait in the bar?

As the front doors glide open, a receptionist, one of several dressed in smart red uniforms, looks up and smiles. Yes, she says, Mr Satchwell is expecting us. Would we care to wait in the bar?

This is not the London office of a major insurance company. It is the Thomas Telford School in Telford, Shropshire. According to Tony Blair's advisers, it is also the future of British education.

Last week, as the Prime Minister resigned himself to losing his Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, Downing Street was letting it be known that its vision of educational progress remains unaltered - and that it is summed up in the shape of this state-funded City Technology College where the results are on a par with the finest private schools in the country.

An astonishing 100 per cent of its 16-year-olds this summer reached five or more passes at grades A (star) to C, almost twice the national average in the state sector.

It is not just the results that have caught the eye of the Downing Street policy unit. Thomas Telford has introduced a range of innovative schemes. The school day is long, starting with breakfast for all pupils at 7.30am, and ending at 6.00pm. Some take an evening meal. Teachers with young children benefit from a nursery. All staff are paid extra in relation to effort and achievement and each teacher has a day off each week to prepare and mark.

The school has also put its entire programme of work on to the internet, allowing the whole community to follow children's progress, a development which Downing Street expects to see all schools take up within the next five years.

Critics of the school - and there are fewer now than when it opened under the Tories in 1990 - claim that it is specially funded and, in some way, feather bedded.

The head teacher, Kevin Satchwell, a stocky man who speaks with a soft Liverpool accent, denies this. "We are just an ordinary school. I can name you a thousand schools that get more money than me. Beacon Schools, Excellence in Cities Academies, special needs schools. It's true we are a specialist school, a CTC, and one of 600, rising to 800 and a 1,000. And we get an extra £110 per student per year, up to 1,000 pupils. But that's it.

"The reason our school does as well as it does is that we've been afforded premier conditions, and that means the freedom to establish those conditions for ourselves.

"It's not about money. It's about management and a proper business approach. There's nothing that we do here that isn't replicable elsewhere."

But could he and his team transform a sink school in, say, Islington or Lambeth?

The question is a loaded one. The fate of other schools once hailed as "the future" is not a happy one. Only recently David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, was lending his support to Islington's innovative Arts and Media school. Created from the ashes of the failing George Orwell School, it boasted the flamboyant Torsten Friedag as principal and had one of Mr Blair's education advisers, Andrew Adonis, on the board of governors. That was before the BBC screened a documentary including scenes where a parent told Mr Friedag: "There is a race war going on in your school." Mr Friedag is no longer at the school.

And in their time Holland Park comprehensive in West London and Highbury Grove in Islington have been hailed as models of excellence. Both schools were subsequently criticised for low standards.

Mr Satchwell looks back warily across his enormous desk before his infectious optimism clicks back into place.

"Easy!" he says, a bit like a football manager on a roll. Then he adds: "Providing the conditions are right."

Mr Satchwell is clearly an exceptional head teacher. His school is a showpiece. His staff, all of whom benefit from performance-related pay, are content and imbued with a rare sense of purpose; his pupils work hard and routinely excel themselves.

But several factors operate in Thomas Telford's favour. The town, a centre of the UK information technology industry, is prosperous and homogeneous. Local companies work closely with it. The Mercers Company of London, one of the most civic-minded of the Guilds, offers advice, management assistance and cash on an ongoing basis.

Success breeds success. The Thomas Telford School is a flagship institution, visited by educationalists from around the world.

Mr Satchwell insists that the trick can work elsewhere. "By 2004, there will be 1,000 specialist schools, which is almost one in three of the national total. That's all come out of the CTC initiative, opposed by Labour at the time but which the Government now embraces.

"Anything that happens in any school that's good, we lump it together and make it part of our system. That's why we have 1,200 applications this year for just 161 places."

Mr Satchwell, who came to Telford after four frustrating years as a head teacher in Wolverhampton and 14 years teaching technology, recognises that he has been fortunate. But as he lists the reforms he has instituted, it is hard not to conclude that a phenomenon is at work here.

"We've never had a lock off a toilet door in 10 years," he says. "The toilets haven't had to be painted in 10 years. Pupils respond to what they are given, and we make sure they're cared for. We've had the luck, but we made it work."

* It was reported Saturday night that William Hague, Tory leader, is to recommend Mr Woodhead for a peerage.