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Believe they can fly

Getting staff to raise their expectations of pupils helped revive Denbigh high school. Martin Whittaker reports

Name Denbigh high school, Luton

School type 11-16 mixed comprehensive

Proportion of children eligible for free school meals 51.3 per cent

Improved results In 1993, 17 per cent of students gained grade C or better at GCSE. In 2003, 57 per cent gained five or more grades A* to C

When Yasmin Bevan became head of Denbigh high she found no leadership, appalling results, a high exclusion rate and some staff who had all but given up on pupils.

She recalls the reaction when she proposed introducing homework diaries.

"Two or three heads of department came to me and said 'this isn't going to work here - these children can't organise themselves'.

"That was the kind of low expectation I found here. But in the end, if you're in education, you need to believe that anybody can do anything."

This belief is evident when you walk into Denbigh high, in Luton.

Photographs of beaming faces adorn the walls in a roll of honour for last summer's GCSEs.

There has been an outstanding improvement in the past decade. In 1993, just 17 per cent of students gained grade C or better at GCSE. Last summer, 57 per cent gained five A* to C grades - its results were the third highest among Luton's secondaries.

But this school particularly has cause to celebrate. Most of its students come from Asian families in the town's most disadvantaged wards. English is an additional language for 85 per cent of students, and more than half are eligible for free school meals. Denbigh high, a former girls' grammar, had a very poor reputation when Mrs Bevan was appointed to her first headship at 37, and she remains one of the few Asian women in secondary headship in the UK.

She says her ethnic origins have proved invaluable, particularly in communicating with parents. The daughter of a diplomat, she came to the UK from India as a child and speaks Urdu and Bengali, the most common languages among the 43 spoken by her students.

When she arrived at the school it had had acting heads for seven terms. "It was drifting," she says. "The problem and the challenge was, 'Why was the attainment so low?' - that was the conundrum. The school had all the ingredients. It had young people from communities where education is valued."

She says a major challenge was to overcome apathy among some longer-serving staff. Assistant head Stuart Moore, who was a classroom teacher when Mrs Bevan arrived, confirms this. "There was a level of middle leadership who were very set in their views," he says. "They had seen the school change because of the changing population in Luton.

"As the intake had changed they just lowered their expectations and decided that because the children had English as a second language, they couldn't possibly expect them to do well at GCSEs."

Teacher turnover at the school has been high. Between Yasmin Bevan's arrival and an Office for Standards in Education inspection in 1999, three-quarters of the staff changed. "When the Ofsted (inspection) happened we were probably at our lowest ebb in terms of staffing," she says.

One in 10 classes was taught by supply teachers and another 10 per cent by non-specialists.

Since then a recruitment drive to find good-quality teachers, as well as training its own through the Graduate Teacher Programme, has paid off. The school began this academic year fully staffed. After a levelling-off of GCSE results at around 27 per cent in the mid-1990s, and the 1999 Ofsted inspection that found more weaknesses than strengths, the school began to turn a corner.

Mrs Bevan says: "We focused on monitoring and evaluating what was going on in the classroom, saying we're not going to be negative about our pupils, challenging the low expectations and celebrating our gains.

"For young people who haven't got parents who can articulate their legitimate needs, schools have a big responsibility to do that and to fight their corner."

The school has also worked hard at improving its approach to parents. "A lot of our parents haven't been through the education system and for them it can be an alien environment," says Mrs Bevan. "We picked up the phone and talked to individual parents."

The school has a high pupil mobility rate - around 14 per cent of its pupils arrive after the start of the academic year. Mrs Bevan says: "If students start late we say to them 'you don't have to do all the subjects'

- we'll select with them the ones that give them exam success."

Mrs Bevan says the school has run rigorous self-evaluation since the mid-1990s. "In the early days, the target-setting process was seen as quite challenging for some team leaders," she says. "Now it's part of the culture of the school."

The school's governors came under fire from Ofsted in 1999. Although supportive, they were not sufficiently involved in strategic planning.

This has changed, insists Mrs Bevan. "We went out to actively recruit governors and we have appointed a good blend of parents and people who can give a professional perspective. Now we never have a problem. We have people queuing up."

The leadership column returns next week

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