The winning formula

The Coopers' and Coborn School has a reputation for high achievement. Sarah Cassidy meets its headteacher, Dr Davina Lloyd, whose recipe for success revolves around sport and the Gospels
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The Independent Online

It is 11am on a crisp winter's morning and pupils at The Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Essex are going about their work in a businesslike way. The calm in the corridors and classrooms is noticeable, particularly for a school that holds almost 1,300 youngsters on its campus in Essex's leafy commuter belt. The industry of these comprehensive pupils has paid off: this week the school is celebrating after recording the best A-level results in the country.

It is 11am on a crisp winter's morning and pupils at The Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Essex are going about their work in a businesslike way. The calm in the corridors and classrooms is noticeable, particularly for a school that holds almost 1,300 youngsters on its campus in Essex's leafy commuter belt. The industry of these comprehensive pupils has paid off: this week the school is celebrating after recording the best A-level results in the country.

After several years near the top of the official tables, The Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Upminster has finally secured the number-one slot with an average point score of 410.3 - equivalent to more than three A-grades per student, or four B-grades. These results are the best in the school's history. Previously Coopers' and Coborn has been ranked as the top comprehensive in England for its GCSE results - this year it is the comprehensive with the best A-level scores.

"We are particularly proud to come top because we have a very large sixth form. We have achieved these standards with a large number of students - which is obviously more difficult than achieving it with a smaller number," says Davina Lloyd, the school's headteacher.

Coopers' and Coborn is a non-denominational Christian school, and Dr Lloyd believes that the strong religious ethos has played an important part in its success. "It is about the feel of the school," says Dr Lloyd. "The Christian ethos is probably so embedded. It is rare to hear anybody shout because relationships are so good. People treat others as they would wish to be treated themselves. Everything we do is embedded with the teachings of the Gospels." To be offered a place, children have to be a member of a world religion - which means that humanist or atheist pupils are turned away.

The school is thought to be the first sports college to come top of the A-level tables. Although specialist colleges have been praised for their exam results, sports colleges have not tended to be ranked as the very highest performers. Even before becoming a specialist sports college in 2002, Coopers' and Coborn had a good track record of providing young sportsmen and women for national teams, and sending students out into the community to do sports-related voluntary work. This autumn the school was judged to be "the most sports-minded" school in Europe by the European Commission. But even Dr Lloyd admits that many people were surprised that a school with such a reputation for academic excellence would opt to specialise in sport.

"We could see that the Government wanted every school to be a specialist college," she says. "If you could not get specialist status you probably would not be regarded as a good school, so we decided to apply. We are known as an academic school and I think people might have though that the logical choice was for us to specialise in an academic subject. But the problem was, which one would we choose?"

Sport was the natural choice because Cooper's and Coborn had always been strong in the subject, and ran a lot of extra-curricular activities and community-based schemes involving sport. "We have a view of education that is very wide. We wouldn't like anyone to think that we are just an academic school," says Dr Lloyd. "I think you get more out of children the more you put in. Our most successful children are those that do the most. Work expands to fit the time available, so those that take on the least achieve the least."

Dr Lloyd says that her school wants children to achieve in every possible way, and to achieve this aim repeats the message over and over again. "Even those that might not be the most able or talented seem to get carried up with it all and do extremely well," she says.

A recent Ofsted report confirmed that excellence at Coopers' and Coborn is not confined to academic success. The inspectors concluded: "This is an exceptional school of real excellence that provides a very high quality of education all round. Excellent attitudes to work and play mean that the pupils, supported by very good teaching, learn and achieve a great deal."

Most students take three A-levels plus general studies, although a significant number took five A-levels this summer. "It was an exceptional year" says Dr Lloyd. The school's GCSE results were also excellent: 99.4 per cent of students achieved five passes at grades A* to C. "Only one child didn't reach this standard," says Dr Lloyd. "And it was a child we were very successful with. They had been a school refuser and probably wouldn't have got anything at all in another school."

Coopers' is no stranger to controversy. It was reprimanded by the Local Government Ombudsman in 2002 for the way it conducted interviews with prospective students. As a faith school, it is allowed to interview pupils about their religious commitment, but the ombudsman said that children were being asked wider questions about topics such as their hobbies. The school has since abandoned this practice.

Despite the ombudsman's criticism, Dr Lloyd argues that Coopers' and Coborn is truly comprehensive. She believes that its intake is brighter than average because it is situated in a "leafy suburb in outer London" - most of its students come from in and around Upminster, but the school maintains links with its history in the East End by offering places to children with family connections to the old school. Twenty one students from Tower Hamlets attend.

The school is massively over-subscribed, even though selection for grammar, denominational and private schools creams off some potential students. Its pupils come from wealthier-than-average backgrounds and the number eligible for free school meals - an indicator of deprivation - is well below average.

"A lot of parents like children to come to a church school because discipline is seen as good," says Dr Lloyd. "There is certainly a definite ethos about this place. It is a very peaceful school. Things flow through the day. There is very much a sense of purpose. Behaviour is very important, as is pride in the uniform."

The comprehensive's status as a non-denominational Christian school means that all students have to take religious education to exam level and RE teachers at the school must be Christians. About one quarter of the sixth-form work with local primary schools as part of community sports leader awards, which the school believes teaches them leadership skills, teamwork and to balance extra-curricular activities with their academic studies.

"This is about putting something back as well as gaining leadership skills, self-reliance and teamwork," says Karen Pack, the school's director of sport. "The students who choose to join the programme tend not to be members of the school's the sporting elite. They may be the ones who do not enjoy practical PE so much but get a lot out of helping others enjoy it. A lot of our good sports people are also very high academic achievers. Time management is a skill that they learn to be very good at."

The school traces its roots to Nicholas Gibson, a City merchant who in 1536 built an almshouse and a school in Ratcliff, a hamlet in Stepney in east London. This passed to the Coopers' Company, the livery firm representing the makers of wooden casks, after his death.

The company set up a secondary school for girls in 1878 alongside the Coborn boys' school, and in May 1970 the schools merged and moved to the current site in Upminster. The Cooper's Company and Coborn School was officially opened in September 1974.

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