Animal magic: Down on the farm, up with the grades

Amid the grammar schools of Kent, one comprehensive breeds remarkable success. Francis Beckett meets a man taking on selection – with help from some four-legged friends
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The Independent Online

According to Ofsted, Homewood School, near Tenterden in Kent, is "a comprehensive school... in a local authority also providing selective education". This may be technically accurate, but it does not tell the full story. It's like saying that all schools in Kent are equal, but some are more equal than others. Homewood, whose 2,100 pupils and collection of buildings of various styles and periods, is to all intents and purposes a secondary modern. But it is a secondary modern that does amazingly well, challenging the traditional view that this kind of school is a dumping ground.

Some of its pupils – like Polly, the Year 10 girl who showed me round – positively choose it over the local grammar schools, even refusing to sit the 11-plus because they want to come to Homewood rather than a local grammar school.

"The selective process is a dreadful piece of social engineering" says Homewood's cheerful, exuberant, bearded and amply proportioned principal, William Cotterell, 53. "I don't understand why, in the 21st century, we tolerate this outdated system."

Back in 1997, he had hopes that the new Labour government would change it, and he is uncharacteristically unforgiving about its failure to do so.

Now, he compromises with the selective system, though he is not entirely comfortable about it. As a foundation school, Homewood can set its own admissions criteria.

First, they take pupils from all the surrounding villages. But those outside the catchment area can sit a test, and the top 20 per cent also get into Homewood. It's not a compromise that Cotterell likes but, he says, "This gives us a balanced intake and helps us to maintain our comprehensive nature."

The inevitable result, he says, is "you get kids in Ashford getting on buses to come here, and kids next door to the school getting on buses to go to grammar school in Ashford". It's a very mixed intake – not overwhelmingly poor, as many secondary moderns are, but with some very poor pupils – and, oddly if you are used to city schools, overwhelmingly white.

But Cotterell is also a pragmatist, and lives in the world as it is, not as he thinks it ought to be. He's proud of doing better in value-added league tables than the grammar schools. According to Ofsted, Cotterell's "vigorously articulated confidence... infuses the whole school with a shared vision and buoyancy". At 16 and at 18, pupils' average standards are around the national average, which, as Ofsted puts it, "represents good progress for most students".

On some measures, the school does remarkably well given that the grammar schools cream off many academically able children. Sixty-eight per cent of its pupils get five A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with the Kent average of 65 per cent and the national average of 61 per cent.

Its A-level points score of 556.5 is, of course, dwarfed by Kent's grammar schools. This would not disgrace a comprehensive school in a non-selective area, though there are some other Kent "secondary moderns" that do marginally better. In value-added league tables, it does better than the county's grammar schools.

Many of the pupils from the nearby villages make a conscious choice to go there, rather than to a grammar school. "Parents are far more aware now of what schools are about", says Cotterell. "What they see when they come here is a range of facilities, resources and courses."

He thinks his own daughter, now eight, is likely to choose Homewood, and he will encourage that. "She's grown up with this school and sees it for what it is: a range of opportunities."

If he could re-run his own schooldays, Cotterell would never have gone to his London boys' grammar school. He doesn't approve of single-sex schools, and the grammar school made him choose between his two great interests: music and science. Also, it did not have the wide variety of subject choices that he is so proud of at Homewood.

"The expectations were all to do with the most able," he says. "I didn't want to be a lawyer or a doctor, or go to Oxbridge. I knew I wanted to be a teacher."

So he went to Keele University in 1973 to study education and geography, then taught in Staffordshire, partly in the mining community of Rugeley. "You looked across the playground and all you could see was the pithead and cooling tower, and you wondered what their aspirations could be."

It was there that he saw what education can do. "You could see hope and expectation on the faces of the pupils."

In 1992, he went to Homewood as director of the sixth form and of community education, moving up to become vice-principal to Derek Adam. The two of them set about a string of innovations, which have helped make Homewood an over-subscribed school, despite Kent's selective policy. "Between us, we brought the school to where it is now," he says. When Adam retired last year, Cotterell became principal. By then, much of the running of the school had already been delegated to him.

One thing that Adam and Cotterell never considered changing was the school farm. It's a proper working farm, which sells eggs and lamb, and his farm manager Andrew Town proudly shows the many certificates for prizes that they win all over the county. But the farm is also used for teaching in science, geography, English and maths.

"A head here could get away with changing anything except that. It's been here for a very long time, and is an integral and greatly valued part of the school. It says: a school is about learning for life," says Cotterell.

They have set up a young farmers' club, which anyone can join. Homewood's young farmers are a dedicated bunch. "If you allocate a student to feed the calves, they must have commitment – calves need feeding at weekends as well," says the enthusiastic farm manager, "they have to work hard to achieve those prizes."

It offers open days for the community, and its animals include calves reared from 10 days old, sheep, pigs, goats, rabbits, guinea-pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. Cotterell plans to use all the farm produce on catering courses, once he has overcome the health and safety obstacles.

Among the changes that he and Adam wrought was to the curriculum. The school year is five terms of eight weeks each. In the first two years, pupils study under a "total curriculum" in which all the main subjects go into a thematic course. So, for example, the history teachers have developed a thematic way of looking at the Norman Conquest, with inputs from other subject teachers. Cotterell explains: "How do you get an army from northern France to England? What's it going to be like for a Norman soldier coming here? How do you report that to someone else? Once the Normans have come here, they are immigrants – what's that like?"

Cotterell is trying to escape from the strictures of taking exams at set ages, and pupils can sit public examinations early if they are ready. Homewood makes everything flexible, ensuring that pupils do not have to choose between academic and vocational courses. "If a child wants to look at applied learning, why not? I have kids who are doing painting and decorating alongside an A-level course," he says.

He likes to devise the curriculum, as far as possible, around the individual. "We look at the profile of each child when they come into the school, and ask: what is the best curriculum model for that child to lock in to?" The students I spoke to felt enthusiastic about the wide range of choices.

The school has what he calls "vertical tutor groups". Instead of a tutor group consisting of pupils from the same year, it will have pupils all the way from year 7 to year 10 – pupils from age 11 to age 14 rubbing shoulders with each other, and learning from each other, which he says gives almost "a sense of family".

The management system is as devolved as possible, so that the huge school is almost a collection of mini-schools of 300 or so pupils each and he has a management team of no less than 17.

Not that any of these frenzied reforms stops him from having fun. Until a few months ago, he was the lead singer in a staff band that was good enough to get commissions for gigs locally. Now one band member has retired, and two have gone to other schools.

Unusually for the head of such a large school, Cotterell finds it important to be at the chalkface every week, and his style of teaching is rather like his style of management: cheerful, friendly, relaxed and theatrical. I watched him bring to life a rather dry survey of criminal law for sixth formers, with liberal use of hand gestures and colourful imagery. At one point, the class burst out laughing as they recalled a case he had described last time, of a man who sued after a microwave exploded in his face.

Then he brought me in. Our journalist visitor, he said, wanted to find a suitably humiliating photograph of him. What had I come up with, he wanted to know? I said I wanted him to go down the farm and be photographed with the animals. "See what I have to put up with?" said Cotterell. "Ritual humiliation, that's what it is."

The sixth formers laughed, and the principal tramped off good-naturedly to feed the calves and inspect the chickens for the benefit of our photographer.