SATs results have improved nationally year on year for all racial groups, according to available figures. But that improvement is less marked among children from ethnic minorities than their white counterparts, say researchers from London University's Institute of Education. In Birmingham, which, since 1990, has produced data to map the achievement of ethnic groups, Afro-Caribbean boys fall short of the LEA average in English and maths by the end of key stage 2, despite entering the system at average or above-average attainment levels.
Cherry Orchard, with 44 per cent Afro-Caribbean, 44 per cent Asian and 12 per cent white pupils, is reversing the national (and local) picture of underachievement, and plenty of people - from neighbours in the city to other schools around the UK - want to know how they are doing it. Word has spread among parents too; the school has waiting lists for all years.
If headteacher Sue Robinson could give an easy answer, she would. But the successes at Cherry Orchard are due to a range of measures and to something more intangible, what the head refers to as "the smell of the school". There is careful monitoring of children and "targeted teaching for raising standards"; the school sets for maths, English and science at key stage 2 and gives extra support to the lower ability group. But equally important are positive relationships, high expectations and a real attempt to live the school motto: "Aim high in learning and caring". Results at the 1940s, split-site school certainly cannot be attributed to state-of-the-art premises. Behind the displays of work that adorn every wall lie peeling paint and well-worn fabric.
Cherry Orchard's 420 children come from a catchment area of up to six miles, with substantial numbers from the inner city. When Ofsted visited in 1999, it described a "broad socio-economic mix" with above average numbers of children having English as an additional language.
Sue Robinson, in post since 1996, wrote her masters dissertation at the University of Central England on "What contributing factors raise Afro-Caribbean achievement". She says: "I was interested in why Afro-Caribbean children weren't achieving as they should, and it was incredibly useful. It gave me the opportunity to talk to parents in depth, in a way I never normally would do."
What parents told her has fed into practice in the school. "Communication with parents is one of the most important things," she says. "Very few don't care, and Afro-Caribbean parents care a great deal about educational success. Where the problem appears to lie is that not everyone is able to access it. So the responsibility of the school is to try to help people as much as we can."
Home-school agreements, she says, do not inspire parents. But homework diaries, guidelines and the "target booklets" the school issues to all parents each term are practical and popular measures that seem to work. The booklets detail topics and learning aims, and include related "fun activities" for parents and children to do together. "Those parents who want to know what their child is doing but can't come to our parentpupil workshops can be reached," says Ms Robinson. But the focus on academic achievement does not preclude other activities; the school is aware of the danger of becoming "a national curriculum factory". It puts on evening performances of shows, runs residential trips, and "parent partnership worker" Jackie Mohr organises courses for parents in ICT, mentoring and first aid, put on in the school by local colleges.
Much effort goes into instilling a sense of communal identity among the pupils. "We make a great deal about being a Cherry Orchard child and how good it is," says Ms Robinson. Certainly, children are confident to explain their school, talking about attendance targets, peer mediators, overhead projectors, the rewards system. "We don't like racism in this school," says Rio Forbes, 11, who won a debating award in a city-wide competition. "We have different cultures." Emile Ivrey and Shaun Broomes, also 11, enjoy showing off their old reception classroom; its sandpit and tricycles clearly evoke happy memories.
Many of those involved with the school put its successes down to this whole-school spirit. "Children appreciate each other," says Carol Sterry of Birmingham Breakthrough Trust, a local organisation supporting citizenship initiatives. "Some schools don't have that culture of appreciating each other. But if that isn't created from the top, it becomes very evident from the children's behaviour." At her girls' grammar school, she says, black pupils felt very insecure, "so we all went round together. Here, the school relates to children as children." The barriers that are sometimes evident between Asian and Afro-Caribbean children are not present at Cherry Tree, she says.
The racial composition of Cherry Orchard's pupils is reflected among its teachers, governors and support staff. Parent governor Shane Ward is one of nine black and Asian governors at Cherry Orchard; he runs the West Bromwich African and Caribbean resource centre and has children aged 10 and six in the school. "Parents have a responsibility to monitor, to get involved and to make sure they have a dialogue," he says. "From my generation, some people did have bad experiences with school, so there will be a problem with trust. But there's a good feel here and parents are encouraged to get involved."
Mr Ward acknowledges the high exclusion rate nationally for Afro-Caribbean boys, but believes relationships at Cherry Orchard help keep all children in school; no black children have been excluded within the memory of the governors. "It's the approach and the involvement with parents," he says. "Once the trust is there and parents can see that other children are achieving, they can't say, 'Oh it's just because we're black'."
The school tries to make the curriculum as multicultural as possible, and to go beyond the "bolt-on" approach, says Sue Robinson. Children study Benin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, St Lucia. Burne-Jones's Ophelia is on the wall next to Indian masks in the art corridor. "It's about learning," says Mr Ward. "A topic on Martin Luther King is no different to teaching children about Henry VIII. Sometimes people can put up barriers that aren't really there and it's a question of unnecessary fear."
The Reverend Clifford Fryer, chair of governors for the past five years, says: "We try first of all to be a community, and an inclusive community. One of the challenges has been to get an inclusive group of governors; it is important that the children see people of all races on the governing body." Rev Fryer is white. But as the pastor of a black majority church - Cannon Street Memorial Baptist - he says he "has his ear to the ground". Members of his congregation believe there is institutional racism within the education system, and he tries to counter that perception - and reality. "We have to find a way to recruit more black teachers." He runs "education Sundays" in the church, praying for children entering school, people who are studying and those undertaking teacher training. He invited Sue Robinson to talk to the congregation about her work. "It's all part of the interaction with the community," he says.
Heather Carty, assistant chair of governors and a member of the behaviour committee, has had three children go through Cherry Orchard, with one still there. "As a parent, you don't always know what's going on," she says. "We try to make ourselves known to parents; we are around for them. They come up in the playground and ask questions; some people are scared to approach a headteacher. We try to show parents that we care, because they can feel a bit lost." Governors will visit parents and pupils at home if necessary, to repair or improve relationships between families and school.
Science co-ordinator Judith Richards has taught at Cherry Orchard for eight years. She, too, emphasises the efforts made to open the school to all parents. "Parents have to be educated in believing in the system," she says. "Once they know the school has the children's best interests at heart, they will support as best they can. It's a two-way process." Her job is to educate not only the children but also the staff, she says. "As a black teacher you're talking to other teachers about various things; there are little, fine things between cultures like mannerisms, peer pressure, the extended family, aspects of background. Sometimes negative assumptions are made, but what we've done here is expect the best from all children. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
As PSHE and citizenship co-ordinator, Anita Jaswal plays a crucial role in helping children live harmoniously. "Children are proud to share their knowledge with each other, to stand up and talk about their culture, about themselves, about home. And they enjoy finding out about each other. In black history week, some Afro-Caribbean children did Ghandi, and an Asian child did Malcolm X. We have a range of books, a range of materials, and they're used throughout the school."
Sue Robinson returns again and again to "the strength of the ethos". "We talk about racism, we talk about how we feel. We focus all the time on being fair, on what is fair for everyone. And there is an innocence in our school. They listen to us when we say that everyone is equal." Keeping up the raised standards is a constant challenge, says the head. "We won't stay there unless we're vigilant over it. Headship is not a job where you can sit back and say, 'Whew! We've done it'."
Under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, which came into force in May this year, all schools and education authorities are required to produce comprehensive data on pupil performance. The 'pupil level annual school census' obliges schools to provide data on attainment, attendance and other areas in a range of categories, including ethnic group. By January 2003, all schools must have the software to provide annual returns to the Department for Education and Skills