Kings Manor, now Kings College, was the first of the Surrey three to take the private road. Situated in the middle of the Park Barn estate in Guildford, the school is surrounded by mostly 1960s council houses, many with pebble-dashed facades.
Only 40 of its 180 places were filled in 1999. This was a sink school heading for closure, with around 50 pupils who had been excluded from other schools in Guildford on its roll.
Now fills its pupils come from far and wide - four of them make the 90-minute daily journey from London to attend. All this in just two years since September 2000 when 3Es, the Birmingham-based company, won the 10-year contract to turn the school around.
Today it is the school of choice for 17-year-old Susie Hughes, who gained eight A and two B passes at GCSE and is in her second year of the sixth-form.
Susie was attracted to Kings Manor because it offers the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels, but she says her parents were apoplectic when she told them she wanted to move there. They knew the school's reputation and could not understand why she wanted to switch from one of the highest-performing schools in the county to the lowest, a school that achieved only a 10 per cent GCSE pass rate the year before she joined.
"They came to look round and they were happy with what they saw," she says. "I am very happy too. The atmosphere here is more relaxed and less authoritative than at my previous school."
Fellow sixth-former Lynda McClune, whose family is from the United States, is one of four students who travel from London. "It can take me up to two hours to get here, but the long journey is worth it," she says.
Michael Goff, 17, stayed on to the sixth-form from the old Kings Manor. "It is a complete 360-degree turnaround from the way it was before," he says. "Until recently, I had no intention of going to university. It has changed my way of looking at life completely."
His friend, Graeme Carey, another Kings Manor product, says: "The teachers bond with us more. They are more like older students. They are there to talk to and sort out problems."
The headteacher, David Crossley, expounds the philosophy that has helped turn the place around: "Mass education was originally developed to meet the needs of the factory age, but schools are still organised on factory lines, with students treated as class or year entities, ruled by the bell and a rigid timetable.
"We try to treat each pupil as an individual. We aim to create a can-do culture that prevails through the staff and through the students, and to build an ethos of trust in expecting young people to get things right."
Mr Crossley has broken the mould by introducing a longer school day with longer lessons - many 100 minutes long, other of 50 minutes. Students have two breaks in a day, a 20-minute break for "brunch" and a lunchbreak of 30 minutes.
Where there was once a "corridor from hell" lined with kicked-in lockers, pupils now leave their belongings in a theatre-style cloakroom. Meals are taken in the cyber-restaurant, which is central to the school's philosophy and success. Breaks are organised by class with no more than 180 released at any one time. They often take place within lesson times, with students leaving their work on their desks and returning after break. Pupils are expected to show consideration for classes still in operation as they move about the school.
Mr Crossley describes such a structure as "dramatic and all-pervading", adding: "It is a fundamental element of our ethos of trust and culture of achievement."