With comprehensives like this, who needs grammars?

Maureen O'Connor visits an ordinary neighbourhood school that produces outstanding results
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The Independent Online
Sharnbrook Upper is the kind of school that makes it certain there will never be a grammar school in every town again.

This outstanding comprehensive school in north Bedfordshire has the support of the middle classes and produces superb results across the ability range.

Two months ago, inspectors from Ofsted gave it the accolade of "outstanding". This week's education White Paper on selection has little to other a school like Sharnbrook, says the head, David Jackson. He is not interested in selection of any kind. He does not want to specialise. He is content to continue to offer excellence to his local community because he believes that is what all the children in the area deserve.

"It seems to me strange to emphasise the importance of family and community and then try to fragment both by educational selection and segregation," he says firmly. He recalls his own parents' paranoia when the 11-plus loomed.

Sharnbrook serves a huge 270 square kilometre area. It is pleasant, stable, semi-rural but not so well-favoured as to give the school an intake much out of kilter with the national average. In those terms it is a genuinely comprehensive school. But with its average intake it produces results which are outstanding.

Last year 63 per cent of students gained five A to C grades against a national average of 41 per cent. Almost all students gained at least one pass. Even this masks astonishing results in particular areas: 86 per cent grades A to C in science, for instance, 71 per cent in the expressive arts - a course which all pupils take up to 16 - and 69 per cent in French. At A-level, a point score of 21 puts Sharnbrook in the same league as many selective private schools, a fact which draws a new intake of 50 each year at sixth form level, most from the private sector.

But there is no weeding out of weaker students at 16, Mr. Jackson says. A student with a D at GCSE can continue to A-level if he or she has the support of a teacher. Eighty one per cent of Sharnbrook students stay on into the sixth form to take A-levels or GNVQs, and another 10 per cent go to further education colleges to take courses the school cannot provide.

In the past Sharnbrook's reputation has pulled in students from beyond the primary and middle schools which technically make up its catchment area. A quarter of its current pupils are from outside the area, some from outside the county. These admissions were made during the trough in pupil numbers which at one time threatened to reduce the school's numbers by half. That proportion will decline as the birth rate rises and most of the places are again taken by local children. This year only brothers and sisters of children already in the school will be admitted from outside the area.

David Jackson is unmoved by this gradual switch back to a community base. Unfashionably, he believes in community comprehensive schools. "What parents want," he says, "is access to their local school and for that school to be a good one."

Surprisingly, perhaps, in view of its total opposition to many Government policies, Sharnbrook is grant maintained. They prefer to call it "self- governing" because the school, with some heart-searching, took that particular path not on ideological grounds but to make decision-making easier. With budgets declining, the head and the governors reckoned they would be better able to make decisions about priorities. One innovation is a bursary fund which enables students to seek financial help it they need it to take advantage of what the school offers both on and off the curriculum.

The school's aim, Mr. Jackson says, is to provide high quality education to enable every single child to reach his or her potential. "We know that children develop at different rates. We know that telling people they are failures demotivates them, we aim to be optimistic about young people, to value them all and have high expectations for them all."

This is achieved, he thinks, by high quality teaching and by the close relationships his staff build up with every student, down to making time at the end of each day for tutors to discuss homework and the next day's events with their class before they go home.

As an over-subscribed grant-maintained school he could already be selecting his pupils, but he will have nothing to do with the idea.

"You can't impose a cut-off point. We have children here who will get straight As and we have a child with Down's syndrome. We work with them all to create a community of young people who value difference, who can work together and who help each other to achieve."

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