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Little push makes all the difference

Focus on particular pupils doing particular subjects: that was how Highbury Fields, a 700-strong girls' comprehensive in the London borough of Islington, achieved the impressive jump from 30 per cent to 43 per cent in the number of pupils getting five A to C grades this year.

Its success just failed to lift Islington off the bottom of the local education authority league table. Overall, the proportion of pupils in the borough's nine secondary schools reaching that level rose from 17.4 per cent to 22.4 per cent. Although Islington is still in bottom place the improvement shows success at last for its Improving Pupil Achievement Project.

Ann Mullins, the head of Highbury Fields, where more than half the girls are on free school meals and one-third speak English as a second language, says the school was already "pretty good" at the lower end of the achievement scale. For the past few years, nine out of 10 girls have got a graded result and pupils have achieved an average of seven graded GCSEs each. "What we were not getting was the top end," she says.

School staff were already focusing on girls on the DC borderline, giving them extra help with across-the-board skills. This year, they decided to be even more specific: to home in on particular subjects where a little push would make the difference.

Subject staff identified some pupils and others, not wanting to be left out, opted to join in. In all, nearly one-third of the 100-strong year group were picked out and given extra help by senior staff, ranging from a single interview to help them plan their work to constant monitoring to help them stick to a timetable.

The result? Of the 53 exams targeted, pupils achieved grade C or more in 39. In some cases, pupils jumped three grades. The distribution curve of the school's GCSE results now peaks at C rather than D.

Mrs Mullins says the school, traditionally strong in English, is especially pleased with the improvement in its science results. Since all girls take combined science, success means an extra two A to C passes.

Highbury Fields was in the second group of Islington secondary schools opting to join the borough's Improving Pupil Achievement Project, which started in 1994. The project has seen many changes of school heads, who have to undertake to lead the project. Mrs Mullins, now in her third year, will soon be the longest serving secondary head in the borough.

Schools are meeting the project's first aim - to raise the number of GCSE grades A to C in the core subjects of English, maths and science - not only by targeting pupils but also by organising homework clubs and revision centres.

Highbury Fields has done better than was hoped. "We had a task group looking at achievement and thought the maximum number of A to C grades we could get was 40 to 41 per cent," says Bernard McWilliams, the deputy head. "We were a bit thrilled when it nudged over that."

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