"I never used to want to go to English - I couldn't see the point," says 15-year-old Sam Hathway. "But she's brilliant. She stays behind for hours after school. And she makes it fun."
Sam is chair of Hengrove's school council. Recently, she and some other class reps were sharing a lunch table with new headteacher Sarah Harris. "I asked them what was going well," says Ms Harris. "They told me how much work they were doing in English, and it was great because they'd been so worried."
Ann Thomas agrees Sam's class was a challenge. "They had little motivation. But they've responded, working hard at home and in the lunch hours."
Having taught for 20 years, she's faced similar challenges before - involving "a lot of nagging, coaxing and letters home". But even she was surprised by the turnaround. She uses a portfolio of high-grade work to show students what they must do. "It's incredibly useful to be able to say 'If you want an A grade, this is the level you have to work to'. Then they know it's no good producing one side of work."
Hengrove is in south Bristol, serving the Merrywood estate and other deprived areas. "We have a struggle to achieve a good working atmosphere," says Ann Thomas. "The children have great potential but teachers must put in the energy. Pupils often say 'I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't pushed me'."
But it's not all hard slog at Hengrove. Another tactic for building confidence and enthusiasm is monthly trips to the theatre. "Ann will find the cheapest way possible," says Sarah Harris - a preview or the end of a run, or Monday nights, which are half price at Bristol Old Vic."
At Christmas, 70 Year 7s went to the pantomine, and last month GCSE students saw the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. Later this month they will see a performance of Junk, based on Melvin Burgess's book about the seedier side of Bristol life. Recently, school parties visited the Watershed arts centre to see the film Regeneration, based on Pat Barker's story of the First World War poets.
"At first I thought why is she doing this?" says Sam Hathway. "Now I realise how much it has helped us. We're lucky."