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'It is now cool to be successful at our school'

This week the Government published the annual GCSE league tables for secondaries. Behind the usual vitriolic response damning the state of education in this country were a number of quiet triumphs that illustrate the strength of England's schools. Here The TES talks to the top performers.

WHEN READY WINS THE DAY

Best performing

Allowing pupils to sit their GCSEs when they are ready was credited as the secret to Invicta Grammar School for Girls' success in topping this year's league table.

Kirstin Cardus, head of the selective school in Kent, told The TES: "We usually ask our pupils to take nine GCSEs, rather than other schools, which have pupils sitting up to 13. The majority of our girls opt to sit their exams in Year 10. They can then take a couple of standalone GCSEs in Year 11, possibly with a couple of AS exams."

She added that every year the girls from the year below outperform those in the year above them.

"Our students are very bright and it is down to their hard work, and the hard work of the staff. We have a unique curriculum that offers our pupils a greater balance." RV

TURNING POINT CAME WITH HARD WORK

Most improved school

When Chafford Hundred Campus in Essex recorded its first GCSE results, only 16 per cent of its pupils reached the Government's target of five A*-C grades including English and maths.

Just three years later and the school now tops the list of most improved schools in the country, with 62 per cent of its students hitting the benchmark - a 46 per cent increase.

According to headteacher Chris Tomlinson, the turnaround is simply down to hard work from both the staff and pupils.

"It was a difficult time for us in 2006, but since then there has been a real turning point," Mr Tomlinson said. "We're a very student-centred school and we try to target the individual in terms of our curriculum. We have a real focus on assessment for learning.

"Our working day is 8.30am to 3.30pm, but if you are in Year 11 you will be expected to stay after school for an extra hour and a half at least three days a week, but the real progress is made during the lessons. We have more than 250 lesson observations a year, about six per teacher, and the teachers love them."

And Mr Tomlinson believes the school can only improve.

"We expect to hit 75 per cent next year and 80 the year after that. When it comes to working with children, you can never have a bad year," he added. RV

SPECIAL ATTENTION PAYS OFF

Best CVA for a special school

Mary Hare Grammar has the highest CVA score in the country - but as a special school, its achievement is unlikely to receive much attention.

Tony Shaw, head of the school for deaf children, said he would prefer to be compared to mainstream schools. Mary Hare's GCSE results - 59 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C grades including English and maths - show that it can outperform many of them.

The CVA score of 1,258 reflects the low attainment children have when they start at the school.

Mr Shaw said: "We don't teach sign language. We teach in English by using technology, generating excellent listening conditions and, pitching language just ahead of their individual ability, we can accelerate the rate of progress.

"Most children arrive at 11 with a reading age of seven - they are about four years behind. Deaf children have an impoverished exposure to language before they are diagnosed and, even with a hearing aid, access to language is faltering.

"People talk about inclusion in schools, but our job is to make them included for the rest of their life, and to work they need good English language skills." HW

'MISSIONARIES' DEFY BARRIERS TO LEARNING

Best CVA*

"We have to be education missionaries," says Sir William Atkinson, head of Phoenix High. "We believe the work we do with young people can transform their lives. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to impact these young people."

The west London headteacher attributes his school's position at the top of the value-added table to a refusal to see backgrounds as barriers to success. Phoenix pupils come from one of the poorest boroughs in the country, often with reading ages five years below their actual age.

"We don't take that into account at all when setting targets," Sir William said. "It's now cool to be successful at our school." AB.

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