Punctuality, respect, constant exams: How Dame Sally Coates turned Burlington Danes around

Strong measures were needed to raise standards at the Academy in west London's White City, as Richard Garner discovers

It took Sally Coates a while to decide whether to take on the challenge of turning Burlington Danes Academy around. After all, she was happy in her role as head of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in south London – "a smaller but similarly gritty" school in which she had worked for 20 years. Burlington Danes, though, had been described to her as "feral". "While I've never been a pushover, I wouldn't class behaviour management as a particular strength," she says in her book, Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership, which is published next week.

In the end, she opted for the challenge and the rest, as they say, is history. As a result of her efforts, she was made a dame in recognition for her services to education and was one of the most-praised "superheads" by the former education secretary Michael Gove for her contribution to raising standards.

Burlington Danes, in west London's White City, lies in the shadow of Wormwood Scrubs prison. The nearby Peabody Estate harboured one of the terrorist cells responsible for the 2005 London bombings.

"Gun and knife crime, gang culture and drug-related incidents form part of a significant number of our students' experience," Dame Sally says. Her methods would not appeal to everyone, she concedes, but they were necessary. "The heavy trudge of the staff had to be turned into a sprightly bounce while the discordant pounding of students' feet on the long, narrow corridors had to be channelled into a calm, quick stride," she says.

Dame Sally put her faith in "rigorous" testing of pupils. "We held exams for every subject, in every year group, which sent out a clear message that we were in the business of equipping young people to excel in exams," she says.

"Formal exams for all students also had a calming effect. No one who visits Burlington Danes can accuse us of being an exam factory: we're a vibrant, warm community where a plethora of talents are celebrated but passing exams is the bread and butter of school life and we set about drilling students to take exams seriously.

"Filing into the exam hall in silence, using no other colour pen but black, calculating how many minutes you should allocate to each question: these habits continue to serve our students well and we cultivated them from the start."

All pupils were assessed in each subject every term – three "tests" a year – but core subjects such as maths and English would be assessed six times a year.

"I believe that young people want to do well and I think they can cope with three assessment periods per year. I would argue that it's more stressful for young people to be confronted with life-defining tests at the age of 11, 16 and 18 (as has been the case in the past) than to be tested frequently throughout their school life.

"Quite frankly I think that those who criticise the proliferation of testing in schools are simply on the wrong side of the argument."

Discipline was also a key factor – and respect for staff. "I insisted that female staff were referred to not as 'Miss' but as 'Madam' – the proper equivalent of 'Sir'," she says.

"Manners matter – it's not old-fashioned to hold doors open and to show special courtesy to older people." Discipline also extended to arrival at school in the morning – with all the pupils lining up outside in silence before they were led into the building. Same-day detentions were handed out to all students who were late in the morning.

"By 'late' we mean any time, even a few seconds after the bell goes at 8.30am," Dame Sally says. "I'm aware that this sounds rather harsh, not least given the transport problems that we regularly face in Europe's biggest city, but the rationale behind the sanction is that it compels students to ensure that they are on time.

"We tell students that every minute counts at school, so we're betraying our own advice if we fail to sanction tardiness in the morning."

Perhaps, though, the most controversial experiment was the decision to publish rank orders of pupils (which, she confesses, she got from her husband at her previous school). Under it, every pupil in a year group was ranked between 1 and 180 – with their academic order publicly displayed around the school.

"It's true that unveiling the rank orders triggers tears of joy and despair in similar measure and that their position in the rank order will determine the class they find themselves in," she says. "I'm often asked if I think this method of assessment is rather brutal…

"Firstly, I'm reassured that the rank orders invariably reflect the effort that students make in class and therefore provide a strong incentive for students to work hard. Secondly, it's vital that we provide frequent opportunities for students to improve so that someone who moves down a set due to complacency can correct their ways and move back up.

"When you speak to students at the school you realise that the vast majority of them relish the clear feedback provided by rank orders.

"Countless times in my career I've seen teachers pretend to students and their parents that they are making good progress in order to bring the child onside and avoid conflict. Quite frankly, it's immoral and patronising to deny students awareness of how they are progressing."

When asked which of the measures she had introduced she thought had the most effect in raising standards she singles out the rank ordering. She is now working for the United Learning academy chain helping its schools improve and at least one is using the rank order scheme.

"I'm proud of the rank orders that we introduced in my first term at Burlington Danes," she says in the book. "It remains controversial to publicly display the attainment of all students against each other but these rank orders were transformational in switching the focus from behaviour to learning.

"The key challenge for any assessment system is that it has currency with parents and students. Throughout the decades that I've spent in schools, nothing comes close to rank orders in meeting this challenge."

Pupils would queue up to see where they were in the rankings. Alarm bells would start to ring with parents if their child was 130th in the rankings. "Similarly, if the same child is 80th in the following year, then the parents will know they have made real progress," she says.

The proof of the pudding would appear to be in the eating, as the saying goes. Her fame spread. When honoured in 2013, the Queen said to her: "You're the head of one of those schools that have been transformed."

Later that year, inspectors revisited the school for the first time in five years and declared it "outstanding" in every category.

"At Burlington Danes we've recently welcomed delegations of educators from Japan, China, California, Norway, Denmark, Israel, India and Brazil," she recalls.

As she headed off into the sunset, the school was planning to start a new phase of its life with a primary academy on the same site – thus offering an all-through education to all pupils. She said she had called the book "headstrong" because a school needed a strong head to turn its fortunes round. And no one can deny that in Dame Sally Coates's case, Burlington Danes Academy got one.

'Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership' by Dame Sally Coates (John Catt Educational, £14.99) is available now from johncattbookshop.com