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How has the City Academy in Norwich gone from struggling school to class act?

The school, which was one of the worst-performing secondaries in the country, managed to climb back up the rankings in less than four years.

Four years ago it was the fourth-worst performing school in the country. Only six out of every hundred pupils obtained five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English. Now its pupils are brimming with a new sense of confidence – spending three years instead of two on their GCSE studies, starting them at the age of 13.

For good measure, one classroom is filled with ex-military personnel attempting to boost the performance of pupils on the cusp of getting a C grade pass. They have also extended the school day, with lessons continuing until 3.40pm, instead of ending at 3pm.

Welcome to the City Academy in Norwich, which emerged from the ashes of former failing Earlham High School less than three years ago. It sounds like the school of the future – Education Secretary Michael Gove's hand-picked team reviewing the national curriculum put forward the idea of spending three years on GCSE-level study in their interim report just before Christmas.

They believed it warranted further investigation and, if they put that recommendation into practice, they would do well to visit the pioneering City Academy.

Its extension of the school day has helped it complete the Key Stage 3 curriculum (designed for 11 to 14-year-olds) in two years instead of three. "I think we're doing it differently to the way the national curriculum review suggested," says David Brunton, Academy principal. "They were thinking of three years of study for each subject. We're saying if a student has a passion for a subject they can do it in the first year – and then move on to something else."

The school offers its pupils all the ingredients of the English Baccalaureate – which is given to pupils who obtain five A* to C grade passes, including maths, English, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject, either history or geography.

The extra time devoted to GCSE study, though, does not mean that other areas of the curriculum are phased out – one of the main criticisms levelled at Mr Gove's new qualification. In all, pupils at City Academy have on offer a total of 63 different courses to study. "There's photography and dance as well as history and geography," says Mr Brunton. "Our lower school (years seven and eight) do Latin, and we've also introduced Spanish alongside French and German." Something for everyone, then, really should be the school's motto.

There is also room in the timetable for some of the pupils to start on their A-level studies in their last GCSE years.

The school is following the philosophy advocated in the seminal inquiry into exams by former chief schools inspector, Sir Mike Tomlinson, (which was never implemented in full) that the curriculum should be "stage not age", ie pupils should tackle subjects when they are ready for them, rather than at some pre-determined age.

Over to the ex-military crew busying themselves with those struggling to obtain a C grade pass. They are members of Anglia Adventure, which provides a range of activities for schools. On the day I visited the school they were helping their class brush up on vocational studies, which could boost their overall performance.

Ian Williams, head of the organisation, says: "I've seen big changes introduced in this school. It's on the up."

The upshot of all this is that the Academy – which wrestled with the inheritance of just six per cent of pupils getting five top grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English, – has now seen the figure rise to 40 per cent, thus achieving and bettering the Government's "floor" target for all schools of 35 per cent. That figure is set to rise again this year, heading for 50 per cent. Its improvements are set to be highlighted in the Government's exams league tables due to be published later today.

Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has described it as a "good school with outstanding features". In other measures, too, it has also seen a remarkable turnaround. When Mr Brunton arrived it was in the bottom percentile in the value-added league table, which measures how much schools have improved upon what their pupils were expected to achieve when they arrived at the age of 11. He came with an impressive track record as head of nearby Wymondham High School, which was at one stage the top performing non-selective state school in the country at A-level. It also beat a number of selective grammar schools. He had also worked in a school in challenging circumstances beforehand. Three years on, and the City Academy is in the top one per cent for the whole country for its value-added score.

Attendance has improved, too. "Attendance was 81 per cent and persistent attendance less than 80 per cent," he says. "Attendance is now running at 93 per cent."

One of the obstacles the school had to tackle was behaviour. "It was an unsafe place," Mr Brunton says. "Students wandered around, refused to follow reasonable instructions and truancy was quite rife. Staff were staying in their rooms." One of his first actions was to introduce a "respect" agenda to the school, that pupils respected their fellow pupils and their teachers. Gradually, exclusions for poor behaviour diminished to the extent that only one pupil in each of the last two years has been permanently excluded.

Improved behaviour is one of the issues singled out by pupils who were present under the previous regime before the switch to academy status. Shahrukh Zaffar, aged 14, says: "It has changed a lot in many ways. When we were in year seven the behaviour was not very good. People weren't motivated and nobody really wanted to learn."

Kayleigh Willetts, aged 15, adds: "We've got a new range of teachers now and they help you."

The school, which is jointly sponsored by its neighbours, the University of East Anglia and City College, is getting ready for a £22m rebuild, which will lead to new buildings opening later this year.

It was one of the last programmes to squeeze through under Labour's "Building Schools for the Future" programme, before the Coalition scrapped the scheme. Teachers at City Academy believe the fresh new facilities will give them further room for improvement, while the old school buildings are knocked down to provide more sports facilities for pupils.

If we are talking about implementing the Gove agenda for the future, it is also ahead of the game in another respect.

Earlier this month, Mr Gove talked of the need to improve technology teaching – calling for the old-style information and communication technology lessons to be scrapped and backing the introduction of more searching computer science GCSEs. Again, that is already happening at City Academy.

However, there is one respect in which it might be adopting a more liberal approach than that its masters espouse. It does not seek the banning of mobile phones from the classroom, believing that, in a digital age – and used properly – they can be a valuable tool to aid learning.

* Secondary school tables 2012, ranked by Local Education Authority
* New tables reveal how disadvantaged pupils fall behind
* The Top 100 Comprehensive Schools at A-level
* The Top 100 Selective Schools at A-level
* The Top 100 Independent Schools at A-level