Gold star for Whitesmore

Wendy Berliner on the school that was saved from oblivion
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Caleb Tillott is tough man for a tough area. He is in charge of Whitesmore School in Chelmsley Wood, in the West Midlands. Yesterday, Whitesmore was named by Ofsted as a "beacon of excellence".

Statistically, it is hard to see why. Last summer, just over one in five pupils gained five or more A to C grades at GCSE, compared with an all-England average of more than one in three. Nearly two-thirds of its pupils drop out at 16. But Whitesmore is outstanding in an area of multiple deprivation: it has slogged its way up from near oblivion to being described as a "good school" in an Ofsted report.

Two years ago, one in 10 of its 11-to-16-year-olds gained five or more top GCSEs. Forty per cent of its pupils come from single-parent families, and 43.7 per cent are from families poor enough to qualify for free school meals. They live in what is, in effect, one giant Birmingham council house overspill estate.

Yet the classrooms buzz. Hands shoot up as a teacher fires questions at a mixed-ability class; in others, small groups work independently. The children are friendly and relaxed. "This is a good school," says Peter Gordon, 16. "It deserves to get noticed."

It was not always like this. When Mr Tillot arrived 13 years ago, the school was in a downward spiral; parents had turned their backs on it, demoralised. In one year, three-quarters of its places for 11-year-olds lay empty. Tillot says it took five yearsto reach a point at which the staff did not feel they were hitting their heads against a wall. He laid down clear expectations of behaviour from pupils, and gradually introduced uniforms.

Eight years ago, the school gained control of its own budget. The settlement from Solihull Council was generous, and the school was able to start cutting class sizes. The average teaching group is now 18.2 to one, and the governors have resolved to cut the standard intake from 241 to 162 to keep classes small. The school offers merits to children for effort, good work, attendance and good behaviour. It makes a special effort to identify talent early on. Truancy is minimal.

Tillot can't praise his teachers enough: "It would have been easy for us to sit back and say about this school, `it's not our fault, it's the area'. But we haven't. I'm proud of what we are achieving."