Disaster fires up struggling school to success

Sporting values helped York High School climb the league tables. Jonathan Brown discovers how

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'."

Life and Style
tech
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

General Cover Teacher

£100 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Secondary Teachers of all sub...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Pay between ?110 - ?130 Day: Randstad Education Cardiff:...

Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Supply Teachers Would you ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Group: Being the UK market leader, Ran...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game