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Charity begins

What can St Brian's learn from the posh school up the road? ErI

The Hugh Young Community school is more like a business park than a school.

And it's main business is getting kids through exams. Last year it had a 98 per cent GCSE pass rate; at St Brian's we managed to get into double figures for the first time, and that was largely down to the new GNVQ in airport baggage handling.

Which presumably is why the LEA has paired us up in a best practice exchange. Although exchange is probably the wrong word as staff at Hugh Young are refusing to set foot on our site, which means the scheme is all one-way traffic.

My partner is a history teacher in a tweed suit called Sylvia Millington.

It's Wednesday afternoon, the corridors are clear, and she is giving me a quick tour of Hugh Young. She opens a classroom door and 25 15-year-olds jump to their feet. I instinctively reach for the panic button, which at St Brian's would summon the caretaker to restore order. Miss Millington smiles and touches my arm gently. "It's all right, Miss Casement, this is standard procedure. All pupils to stand when an adult enters the room. Isn't that right, 10A?" "Yes, Miss Millington!" comes the enthusiastic response. It reminds me of the scene in The Sound of Music when Captain von Trapp introduces his children to Maria.

Then it's off to the meeting room, a lavishly furnished area with a cappuccino machine in one corner. On the table there's a bowl of figs. Miss Millington finishes reading her emails on her palmtop and then begins our session on academic improvement. The trouble is that her tips all rest on the premise that pupils might bring a textbook to school, or perhaps a pen and a bag, or even themselves. I finally lose patience when she reaches point number six, which is all about encouraging pupils to log on to a self-assessment website (Pounds 1,600 a year for a multi-user licence). The Paris Hilton dress-up doll page gets the most hits at St Brian's.

I try to explain to Sylvia that our intake is slightly more challenging than Hugh Young's hand-picked middle-class prodigies, but she won't have it. "There's nothing you can teach us about inclusion," she snaps and punches in a number on her mobile phone. "Send in Finola and Ghislaine, please!" she barks.

Two rather thin, twitchy teenage girls appear at the door. Apparently Finola is recovering from a series of eating disorders after becoming addicted to ashtanga yoga, and Ghislaine has been diagnosed with ADHD. I try to look sympathetic and ask what kind of learning support the girls are getting. Sylvia is aghast. "Support? They're here to work, my dear. The best cure for adolescent angst is a bunch of A-star GCSEs!" The girls smile weakly.

Sylvia moves on to point 10, "Planning and communication", but I can't take any more. I tell her that lessons at St Brian's have to be planned with the precision of a five-year-old's birthday party and, as for communication, of course it can be difficult having a discussion through a megaphone with a group of unit kids who are staging a protest on the science block roof, but we do our best.

Sylvia Millington stares at me. Ghislaine giggles. "Well," I say in the tone I normally reserve for Sunday morning religious callers, "I must be off.You've been very helpful."

Charity Casement is the alter ego of a north London secondary school teacher. She'll be back after Easter.

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