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In and out of the abyss

A challenging school in Oxford has seen both ends of the spectrum of success

Two decades ago, the Peers school was renowned for its innovation, and even published its own "bible": The School Book. "Throughout my career I've come across people who have worked at Peers at some time or other," says head Lorna Caldicott. "Staff used to call it the Heineken school because it reached the kids other schools couldn't reach."

But when she took the headship in September 2005, the school was at rock bottom. Within a month it was in special measures.

Now, under her leadership it is beginning to turn a corner. After just 13 months, Ofsted has taken the school out of special measures and said it is rapidly improving.

The Peers, an 11-18 comprehensive, sits between two deprived housing estates in south Oxford. A quarter of its Year 7 pupils are at level 3 or below. Mrs Caldicott had already turned around another challenging school in High Wycombe, but she sought advice from heads with similar experience and appointed one of them to lead a school task-group.

A detailed action plan was drawn up and systems were put in place for regular progress reviews. New management structures were introduced, promoting staff to manage teaching and learning and support behaviour.

One of the first tasks was to tighten security: the site was open and used as a thoroughfare between estates and children felt unsafe, so the school improved the perimeter fencing, put security guards on the gates, and anti-bullying measures were put in place.

New systems to improve teaching and learning were also set up, including lesson observations and professional development activities. Mrs Caldicott tackled poor attendance with anti-truancy campaigns and brought in pound;50 fines for truants' parents as a last resort.

The Peers hired behaviour guru Jerome Freiberg to put in place his consistency management and co-operative discipline scheme, which gives pupils responsibility and a sense of ownership. This was combined with an overhaul of the discipline policy, training for staff and stepping up patrols and support for teachers.

An alternative curriculum was introduced to help pupils in key stage 4 who were at risk of dropping out, while Year 7s were aided by an extension to the primary curriculum.

Last summer's GCSE results showed improvement for the first time in years, up from 20 per cent five A*-C grades at GCSE to 26 per cent. But the head says the school has a long way to go. She is in talks with schools minister Lord Adonis, a former governor at Peers, over plans to rebuild it as an academy.

"It's still very frantic and challenging," she says. "But it's not miserable any more. That was one of the things inspectors really noticed.

Pupils are chatty and proud of their school."

HOW THEY DID IT

Sought advice from other heads and devised a detailed action plan.

New approach to teaching and learning and behaviour support.

Improved site security and tackledbullying to make children feel secure.

More lesson observations.

Anti-truancy strategies, including fines for truants' parents as a last resort.

New approach to discipline, including staff training to tackle disruption.

Alternative curriculum at key stage 4.

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