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Kiss of new life can turn the staid sexy;Last Word

In the past couple of weeks I've had the privilege of visiting two educational institutions which have so turned themselves around they bear only a glancing resemblance to how they were before. I say privilege not to be unctuous and creepy, but because it really is one to go into places that are so alive with success that you sense it the minute you walk through the door.

Everyone should be able to do it. Adrenalin is catching. Your synapses start to snap, new possibility open up, and you leave with your head full of questions, and the exciting possibility that the answers could be very different from what you had thought.

How do we keep up with computer learning? Do we even try? Why should a school switchboard knock off at four o'clock? What are teachers for? When are busy adult learners actually free to take courses? Are filing cabinets necessary? Are classrooms? Why have a sports hall? Which colours encourage learning? What really motivates a 15-year-old boy to study? Should learning be data driven? Or is it all really down to teacher expectation?

These two places could not have been more different. One was a rural, creamed-off comprehensive, the other a big city FE college. However both, after years of intensive changes, had started to pull in outstanding exam results, and win plaudits from the inspectors.

There were similarities, too, in how they'd gone about it. Both had inspirational leaders who had come to their jobs with a clear vision of what they wanted and how they intended to get it.

Both leaders were thoughtful people, able to hold the big picture and the smallest detail in their minds simultaneously, but forceful, too, not shrinking from calling a spade a spade, or indeed a "soft, dependency-based local authority culture" exactly that. They were able to motivate, but also willing to take quite big risks to get to where they wanted to go.

The FE college had downscaled its staffing budget to pay for the building and equipment it felt it must have for the computer-based learning of the future.

The school, though it had traditionally always lost its top 20 per cent of academic achievers to a local 13-plus grammar school had started up a fast track in the hope of being able to hang on to increasing numbers of these.

Both had become skilled in using data - client surveys, predictive grades - to shape and modify progress, and both had paid close attention to the physical environment. The school had painted itself in new corporate colours, put signs at its gates proclaiming "respect, excellence, determination" and taken advice from primary colleagues about displaying work in corridors and classrooms.

The college had so turned its physical environment on its head that visitors might be forgiven for thinking they had arrived at a West Coast software corporation rather than the local tech.

Both, too, had the confidence to go out and tell the world how good they were. In the school's case part of its marketing strategy had been to take out a regular page in a local weekly free-sheet to write about developments, while the college wrote to a journalist - this one - to contend that, contrary to an argument advanced in this column about the value of outstanding teachers, leadership and organisation offered the only real route to success, and if I didn't believe it, I should come and see for myself.

Probably none of these factors would surprise toilers in the school improvement industry, but how many hard-pressed heads and teachers keep up with their findings? Especially since that world has grown so fast in recent years parts of it now seem almost a closed system full of arcane argument and happy mud-slinging with a conference circuit wide enough to satisfy the keenest traveller, and a rainforest worth of documents.

And even if you penetrate the system and read the papers, there is still nothing like the smell and the feel of places that are putting theory into practice to promote an awareness of just how much energy is set free by success.

Talk to an exceptional leader and you are reminded how much everyone wants to be inspired and led; talk to staff who have had the grit to put themselves through intense institutional and personal upheaval, and you realise to what extent we could all be pushed to do things better.

Talk to people who are unafraid of change and you wake up to the fact that the future is full of exciting possibilities. Talk to students who are proud of themselves and what they are achieving, and you remember that everyone is at their happiest when going for their personal best.

But what that best is, and where you find it, are other ideas that shift dramatically as institutions re-invent themselves.

Both these visits forced me to confront personal prejudices head-on. Like so many people who have not been over the threshold of an FE college in years, who have never studied in one and never expected that any of my children would study in one, my notion of them was an outdated patchwork of Tom Sharpe novels and sepia memories of trainee plumbers toiling over their U-bends next to what were once quaintly known as "married women returners" brushing up on secretarial skills.

Yet change the frame, think of lifelong learning, and flexible study, and the huge expanding need for media, management, technical and scientific skills that must now be met, and FE switches to become a vital pivot around which so many new educational departments are bound to turn. At a stroke, it becomes vibrant, sexy, and exciting, and a central strand in the post-modern educational web we are now struggling to weave.

Likewise, take the creamed-off comprehensive school. To see a school that locally still labours under a "secondary modern" label not only achieving better than the national average results with its seriously skewed exam cohort, but also creating its own distinctive, pupil-popular culture as it does so, makes you suddenly start to think the unthinkable.

Maybe the route to ridding the country of the contentious issue of selective schooling, if that is what is wanted, is not to ginger-up acrimonious, politically-fuelled parental ballots, but simply to encourage all schools to get as good as this one, then stand back and watch the grammar schools wither on the vine.

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