Checking the data at their computerised weather station is a daily ritual for pupils at Worthing High School. Every morning, temperature, air pressure, wind and hours of sunshine are carefully logged. "We can use the information to see what's going on and what's going to happen in the future," says 15-year-old Harriet Shelley.
Harriet's teachers, meanwhile, are keeping their own measurements, just as detailed as those from the electronic sensing equipment on the school roof, to help them "see what's going on". Worthing High, a 900-pupil mixed 11-16 comprehensive in a relatively affluent seaside town on the West Sussex coast, is at the forefront of developing a policy for closely monitoring performance and setting targets to improve its results.
Worthing High's policy has been recognised by the Department for Education and Employment as very much in line with the "target-setting" approachsoon to be mandatory for all schools. As this week's White Paper makes clear, all schools will be required to set targets for their performance by September next year.
Worthing High's management policy, developed over several years, is based on a mission statement promising "to provide a framework in which trust and support underpin, and help to engender, a developmental culture in which every individual has the opportunity to excel".
Staff have also produced a set of aims, published in the annual prospectus, and a further set of objectives running to no fewer than 10 pages. Soon after her arrival nine years ago - following a deputy headship at a London comprehensive - headteacher Lyn Fryer introduced a four-yearly "institutional self-review" cycle to put the target-setting procedure into effect. It encompasses shorter cycles of one, two or three years for specific areas - the curriculum, for example - which is reviewed annually.
Its benefits, spelled out in a detailed manual, include greater clarity about objectives, more efficient use of resources, and a "culture of continual improvement". In a phrase summing up the management culture of the school, Mrs Fryer refers to the policy of "restless evaluation" - the constant effort to improve every aspect of the school's operation.
"The approach I wanted was very much along the lines of management by objectives which was fashionable at the time," she says. "The starting point for development is knowing where you are. We started to change the school's culture to become a more reflective organisation."
She says a powerful impetus to change was the prospect of being among the first batch of schools to be inspected by OFSTED. Staff were aware that to do well in the inspection they had to make sure the school's objectives were in line with those set out by OFSTED. Worthing High emerged with a glowing report - it was judged to be "a very good school which provides education of the highest quality" - and has since gone on to develop its self-review procedure.
The review cycle covers six "key areas": curriculum, staff issues, pupil issues, premises, community, and organisation and management. Each is subdivided into several smaller areas for investigation. A senior member of staff is placed in charge of each of these and has to draw up the terms of the review; a working party is given the responsibility of carrying it out. The 40-page manual also details who is responsible for ratifying the results - usually a senior member of staff or the school's senior management team.
Six "key priorities" have emerged from the mass of targets established by working groups of staff, governors and parents in each area of the four-year cycle, They include targets for developing core skills as part of the school curriculum, improving pupils' use of information technology and further improving GCSE results in the middle-ability group. Other key priorities include reducing bullying and improving school security.
Worthing High has also adopted "benchmarking" - systematic comparison with other schools - to improve performance. For the next three years they include 80 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys passing at least five GCSEs with the top three grades.
The self-review procedure has been used to deal with a problem with a group of Year 9 pupils. Data collected as part of the review, and from information provided by the Keele University survey of pupils' attitudes carried out in all West Sussex secondary schools, suggested detentions were unusually high in the year group and that disaffection was rife. Staff identified what the problem was and who was involved, and set targets for improvement based on a point score given for each pupil in every lesson.
"You have to identify what you think the problem is, gather all the information you can and use the data to asses how bad the problem is," says deputy head Martin Quaife. "People have gut feelings but that's not enough. You have to analyse what's happening very carefully so that you can apply the correct solutions. By setting the precise targets you can measure your outcomes and find out if you've achieved what you were aiming for."
The target-setting exercise led to dramatic improvements in the behaviour of all the pupils involved, says Mr Quaife, and they are now waiting for their GCSE results. Data from the Keele survey showed their attitudes to school had improved. They are expected to do well in their exams, and at a social evening recently for school-leavers, one of the pupils gave a heartfelt "thank you" to the staff for taking him in hand. Without the target-setting, he said, his days at the school would have come to a premature end.
The event was seen as a vindication of the self-review policy aimed, in line with the mission statement, at helping pupils make the best of their opportunities.
As part of her changes in the school's management, Mrs Fryer introduced an "inverted pyramid" of responsibility with herself at the bottom, the heads of department and teachers in ascending layers and the children at the top. "We had to understand that the children were our customers," she says. "It was a difficult concept for some staff, but the whole of the self-review process is aimed at helping the children to feel confident so that they can achieve their best."
The first four-year cycle comes to an end this term, and so far the results seem encouraging. The percentage of pupils gaining five or more of the top three GCSE grades has gone up from 53.3 per cent in 1993 to 69.9 per cent last year. Worthing High became the first school in the south-east to be awarded Investors in People status and won a School Curriculum Award.
But the policy of "restless evaluation" inevitably places extra responsibility on staff to perform, and Mrs Fryer accepts that she has a vital role maintaining morale. "Sometimes staff ask when we can stop striving," she says.
"I say perhaps when the exam results level off and we know pupils are doing the best they possibly can. But I doubt if that will ever happen, and who knows what new policies may be introduced. But in any case, to say we would ever stop striving would not be consistent with our philosophy."
WORTHING HIGH SCHOOL'S AIMS
* To ensure provision of a balanced curriculum based upon equal opportunities and high standards.
* To promote the personal development of all by fostering an atmosphere of learning, trust and support in which to develop the skills required to enable participation, perseverance and initiative.
* To uphold respect for moral values and attitudes.
* To promote good relationships within the school community and to maintain a happy, purposeful and caring environment based on a sensible code of self and group discipline.
* To encourage pupils to play an active part in the local community and to involve the community in the life of the school.
* To prepare pupils for the demands that adult life will impose on them, and the demands asked of them in the independent and interdependent roles in society.