The Issue: National Challenge - 'Is my school high-performing or failing ... who has got it wrong?'

This head is so successful that he was asked to advise others on the secret of his success. Now his high-flying specialist school has been placed on the Government's hit list

Until this term, Graeme Hollinshead was the headteacher of one of England's high-flying specialist schools. He led Grange School, in Oldham, with such enthusiasm and flair that, just over a year ago, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust asked him if he would advise others on the secrets of his success. He is also a school improvement partner under the government programme to offer heads a mentor.

How does a school in a deprived community, where many pupils are struggling with English when they arrive, achieve big improvements in exam results and attendance? Mr Hollinshead thought he knew some of the answers.

Then one day in June he woke to find that his school was on a list of 638 threatened with closure if they failed to do better.

Ed Balls announced the National Challenge to raise the proportion of pupils in every school getting good grades in GCSE maths and English to 30 per cent. The Children, Schools and Families Secretary offered schools money to bring in help and advisers to hit the target. Mr Hollinshead had been acting as an adviser; now he was told that he needed advice.

This term he has stepped down from his headteacher role to become a consultant for the trust, a move planned long before Mr Balls intervened: his deputy, Gilly McMullen, takes over. But he is indignant about a statistical exercise which led to hundreds of schools being branded as "failing".

"Is this a high-performing specialist school or a failing school? Make your judgment," he says. "Every head I know would say Grange is a high- performing school. Who has got it wrong?"

If Grange is failing, it hides it well. Corridors are orderly, classrooms hum and pupils describe it as "comfortable". One who moved from another school says he has learned more "because you get more help here".

The staff may be exasperated by Mr Balls's National Challenge announcement but they are not downhearted. Gillian Barker, the special educational needs co-ordinator, says: "I am not going to feel I have failed if some of them don't get a C."

Certificates in the school's reception celebrate Grange's success in the trust's most improved club, for "adding value", as a healthy school, as a regional NASUWT Arts amp; Minds competition winner (in 2004), and as a professional development school through accreditation from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Ofsted is positive. In November 2006, it found the school was "good with some outstanding features". It talked of a "marked improvement in exam results", "an atmosphere of harmony and industry" and above-average results in vocational and arts-based courses.

The school is at the heart of Oldham's Asian community. More than 98 per cent of its pupils are Asian; about 90 per cent are Bangladeshi. Just fewer than two-thirds are entitled to free school meals. Many live in homes where little or no English is spoken.

Mo Rahman, a former pupil who is now an assistant head at the school, grew up in the community. "English is a second language to me and a lot of others," he says. "We need another generation before we see the full impact of education in the community."

Unemployment is high. Many jobs are in the catering industry and part- time. None of this, says Mr Hollinshead, is an excuse for poor performance in exams, and during the past decade the school has proved this. The proportion of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A*-C is up from 15 per cent in 1999 to 71 per cent this year after the school introduced vocational courses that it believed were more appropriate for its pupils.

In 2000, nearly 12 per cent of its school leavers did not go into education, employment or training. Last year the figure was 3 per cent. The percentage of those going into further education or work-related training has also risen sharply.

Two years ago Grange was named a high-performing specialist school. Last year the progress pupils showed between 11 and 16 (the contextual valued added score) put the school in the top 2 per cent nationally. It is also a leading edge school. Ten years ago, attendance was 84 per cent. Now it is 92.5, with more than 2 per cent of absences caused by the Muslim festival of Eid.

Mr Hollinshead says: "Forget five A*-Cs; something is going on that is right. For a school with significant social deprivation, the way out is through education. This school is making sure that a huge percentage of kids moves into full-time education. We are way ahead of the government agenda."

The rub comes with its score for GCSE English and maths. This is improving rapidly, and this year jumped from 20 to 26 per cent of pupils making good grades, but it is not yet up to the magic 30 per cent.

Mr Hollinshead does not quarrel with the view that English and maths are important and says the school was already at work on improvements to maths (its results for English are better than for maths) before Mr Balls's National Challenge announcement.

"We have done research on how our kids learn. It isn't appropriate to sit them at a desk with a textbook, so our teachers are focusing on visual presentation, with videos and overhead projectors," he explains. The maths course is now modular rather than linear. There are after-school, holiday and Saturday maths clubs and online maths schemes for pupils to use at home.

Dion Norbury, head of maths, is backing the programme. He wonders whether Mr Balls understands how it feels to stand in front of some of his pupils. "You do percentages one day and the next it seems brand new. You have to explain things in lots of different ways," he says.

Whatever happens to its pupils' maths scores, Grange's future is decided. In 2010 it is due to move to new buildings less than a mile away and to become an academy.

In the meantime, Mr Hollinshead welcomes the money that the National Challenge will bring and hopes it will be used for an advanced skills maths teacher - if one can be found. "What Grange doesn't need is advisers coming in telling people what to do," he says.

He remains indignant about the National Challenge announcement. "Ed Balls is right to tell every school they need to improve English and maths, but the way he has done it is completely out of order."


What Graham Hollinshead advises

Treat the improvement of English and maths GCSE results as a challenge for the whole school, not just the two subject departments. Mr Hollinshead held a whole-school staff meeting.

Get all the stakeholders - staff, pupils and parents - on board.

Have a good grasp of the relevant data so that you can draw up a list of pupils to target, for both subjects or just one.

Members of the senior leadership team should speak regularly to the families of the pupils on the list about progress towards the targets.

Review your English and maths departments (including holding lesson observations) and decide with the staff what should happen. This should not be a mini Ofsted. The English and maths teachers need to be fully behind the changes.

Decide what the senior leadership team should do to support them.

Look at good practice in other schools.

Cultivate the local media to avoid "failing school" headlines. Invite reporters in and show them the good things you are doing.

Be realistic. "If the results are going in the right direction and we are working hard, then we are doing our best. If we have done our best and have not reached 30 per cent, then we have done our best," says Mr Hollinshead.

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