Farlingaye High School's success is down to the teachers who are passionate about their subjects

Click to follow
The Independent Online

From the outside, it looks like any other post-war secondary school that has been updated piecemeal over the years. But walk through the door and something extraordinary is going on. There's the muted sound of laughter from one classroom, good natured cheering from another and across the way students appear to be heading to the four corners of the room for the active learning part of their lesson.

The corridors are plastered with the pupils' work and notices about the student councils, mentoring schemes and more than 60 clubs and societies. It's a happy, purposeful atmosphere that had Ofsted inspectors reaching for superlatives to describe their impressions of Farlingaye High School.

It is not a school that routinely tops exam league tables, because it has no truck with selection, whether social, religious or academic. It takes all-comers from the market town of Woodbridge, where it is situated, as well as from across Suffolk, and pledges to bring out the best in all of them. The 1,907-pupil comprehensive has specialist status in mathematics, computing and creative arts, and is a Leading Edge school for its outstanding practice and innovation.

Despite the non-selective policy - students can often do an A-level in a subject for which they got a C grade at GCSE - The Independent's table of comprehensive school results for last August rated Farlingaye eighth in England for A-levels, 37 per cent of which were at the top A grade. Today, the Government's performance tables show that it is not just sixth formers who excel. Students who came in with average attainment at 11 are well above average by the age of 16. Over 64 per cent achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE in 2009, including maths and English, compared to the national state school average of 50 per cent. Nearly a third of the school's entries - 32 per cent - were graded A* or A, and 25 students achieved at least six A* grades.

Talk to the students and they tell you that their success is due to the teachers, who care about them and want them to do well. Talk to the teachers and they say the students are lovely, well-motivated young people who play an active part in their school.

What does Ofsted say? Inspectors rated Farlingaye as "outstanding" on every count. They praised the "real sense of community" in the school and the very strong work ethic. Headteacher Sue Hargadon provided "inspirational leadership", the personal development and wellbeing of students was outstanding and lessons at the school reflected "the teachers' genuine enthusiasm for their subjects".

Hargadon, who joined the school 14 years ago, says all staff work on the principle that everyone wants to do well and it is the teacher's job to tap into that and help them achieve it. "We have to find what each one is good at - primarily our aim is to give them good academic grades because that is what they need for the future, but we also ensure they have many other opportunities to excel beyond the curriculum," she says.

Moving to three 100-minute lessons a day was crucial, she says, as it gives teachers more opportunity to use differing strategies for varied learning styles. Each lesson has four phases that can be repeated several times: the starter; the teaching; the learning and processing; and the plenary at the end.

"Learning and processing is the vital one that often used to be missed out. It's not enough to listen to the teacher, you have to process that learning. There's a wonderful little joke about a man who goes past a girl with a dog and she says that she has taught this dog to whistle. 'Why isn't it whistling then?' he asks. The girl replies: 'I said I had taught it, I didn't say he had learned to do it.' That really brings home how the focus has to be on the learning," she said."

Teachers have formed a teaching and learning group that examines theories about the way the brain works and innovative teaching methods. Rebecca Jermy, the English teacher and teaching and learning facilitator, says the way lessons start is important because it arouses the children's curiosity and hooks them in. "A popular starter is to put an envelope addressed to each student on their desks when they come in. Maeve Taylor, the head of English, used it very effectively when she left an envelope for each member of the class containing a letter that featured in a text they were reading."

Although it is a big school, teachers soon know the students' names and get to know them individually. Josh Hutchison, 15, says: "I believe this school is so successful because of all the support you get from the teachers. For example, I was behind with my coursework a couple of weeks ago and the teacher gave up her time to help me catch up. The teachers are really there for us."

The headteacher is universally respected, he says. "She doesn't get any lip from anyone. When you have such a powerful figure who shows what will be good for you later in life, it makes people think they must learn."

It sounds too good to be true and Hargadon admits that the school does have "the usual batch of less motivated students" and tackles any poor behaviour by continued praise and support alongside four different mentoring schemes run by sixth formers, teachers and people from local businesses.

Alice Tomkins, 15, admits she was one of the less-motivated students until she chose to join the "on track" scheme and be mentored by one of the specially trained sixth formers. "In Year 8, at the age of 13 and 14, I didn't want to be in school. I wasn't interested in lessons and talked and messed about. I used to miss lessons and get a lot of detentions. Then I was mentored by a sixth former and saw how they were really going for it and getting a lot of out of school and it made me think I ought to do the same. The teachers helped me find lessons I could be interested in."

Now in her GCSE year, she is likely to be adding to the school's good reputation. "I'm predicted to get three A*s, six As and one B. It's pretty amazing and it's down to this school," she says.