Most headteachers would look back on the day their school burnt down as one of the worst in their careers. For David Ellis, however, the calamity that befell York High – while undoubtedly traumatic to all concerned – marked a flaming juncture in fortunes.
The blaze took place in October 2008, just a year after the merger of two local secondary schools in the west of York. Eight hundred children, aged between 11 and 16 years old, were poised to relocate to a new £13.5m site where they would also get use of a new state-of-the-art leisure centre. However, as they waited to move in to their new home, disaster struck. A third of the buildings where they were being temporarily housed were destroyed and pupils and staff were scattered across the city for the next two months to continue their studies as best they could.
"Basically it was the turning point for the school," explains Ellis, former head at one of the merged institutions. The combining of the schools into a specialist sports college had not been universally popular with people living in the catchment area of Acomb, home to some of the most socially disadvantaged communities not just in York but the whole of Britain. Ofsted considered one of the original schools to have serious weaknesses, while both were low achieving with falling rolls.
"Although they accepted that bringing the two schools together was a good idea, both the young people and the parents felt it had been forced on them," Ellis says. A public meeting was held to outline what was going on. Six hundred people turned up.
"We explained to them what was going to happen and opened the floor to questions with a radio microphone. They said they thought we were doing a fantastic job and then all 600 broke into a round of applause. We never looked back from that point. I don't mind admitting I was a little bit tearful. I am not saying parents agree with whatever we do all the time but from that point they have supported us non-stop," Ellis recalls.
It is no surprise that they do. Last summer, only a year and half after it moved into its new home, York High School posted GCSE results that, on some measures, lifted it from the bottom end of York's league tables to become the county's second highest achiever.
A banner proudly displayed outside the new entrance tells visitors and this year's candidates that 93 per cent of pupils last year achieved five GCSEs at A-C grades. Of these, 57 per cent included English and maths which improved 25 per cent and 11 per cent respectively since 2009. Next year, Ellis believes the results will be even better and former students clutching double-digit numbers of A*s will start filtering into Britain's best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
For Ellis and Gavin Cowley, his deputy and head of achievement and specialism, the dramatic turnaround has been achieved by tapping into students' latent ambition. "We needed to change expectations more than anything else. The expectation was that the young people who came here would never do very well," says Ellis.
Pupils certainly seem to have bought into the new culture of success that envelopes them. They make good use of the sports facilities – the 13m climbing wall (pictured on the cover), gym suite, badminton courts, mountain biking and a swimming pool that would put many private health spas to shame. So too do they enjoy the drama and recording studios, well-appointed classrooms, modern library and café facilities set beneath a soaring central atrium.
Year 11 student James Duck is well aware that the school used to suffer from an image problem. "They used to say the school was a bit rough," he recalls. It is not the case now his friend Kieran Grayson agrees: "It's like a big family," he says. Abbie Bowman, also 15, who wants to be a paediatrician, said learning was still fun despite the emphasis on results. "It is not all set down and you just listen to the teacher talking. You can have a laugh and still get the work done rather than writing out of a book and not learning anything because you are bored," she says.
Both Ellis and Cowley, self-confessed "sports nuts", believe the sporting values they both cherish are as important as academic excellence. "What we try to embody here are the ethos and values of sport – working as a team and achieving your personal best," says Ellis. But there is no doubt that they are serious about maintaining their GCSE achievements.
Both are committed supporters of diplomas – last year around a fifth of students took them while the rest pursued the more traditional GCSE route. Borderline C/D students receive particular attention while students are encouraged to sit exams in November, allowing staff to concentrate on the minority who need to retake while the others can add to their qualifications haul.
Each pupil's progress is monitored on a spreadsheet containing up-to-the-minute, colour-coordinated details of each one's progress, including the key "battleground" students and subjects where a D can become a C with a few timely interventions. But in the end it all comes down to belief and encouragement, explains Cowley. "I will stop the students in the corridor and tell them when I have heard about the good things they have done. The recognition that someone is looking out for them is really appreciated. You can see them growing in confidence. They may then come back to me next time and tell me what they are doing," he says.
Next year more change is afoot but this time of a sartorial nature. Pupils have voted to adopt a new uniform that will include a tie and V-neck jumper replacing the baggy fleece that was adopted at the school's formation for its affordability. They were only narrowly outvoted by cost conscious parents on introducing a school blazer too. Ellis says: "They are saying 'We are proud of our school and now we want the uniform that we can be proud of too'."