hen Anne Carhart returned to the land of her birth after 25 years working in London schools, what she found startled her. She went back as head of a 1,200-pupil mixed comprehensive that, she says, "was 20 years behind the times". She discovered a "grammar school within a secondary modern" where pupils were strictly setted at Year 7 and remained in the same set regardless of their progress. She found staff with excellent subject knowledge, but with a teaching methodology that was way out of date. She was told that behaviour was the main problem within the school - it had a high exclusion rate - but she discovered instead that pupils had a strong desire to learn. She found a school woefully under-resourced. In the business centre, pupils worked on typewriters instead of computers. Above all, she encountered a resistance to change, with a staff steeped in an education culture that had hardly changed in decades.
Three years on, she can look back with some satisfaction at the progress that has been made at Maesteg secondary. The proportion of pupils gaining at least five top-grade GCSE passes has jumped from from 30 per cent to 45 per cent. More significantly, the number of pupils leaving school with no qualifications has been slashed. Three years ago, 22 per cent of pupils left Maesteg without a single GCSE, the highest rate in the whole of Wales.
Last year, that "horrendous" figure fell to 4 per cent.
Only 35 per cent stayed on for the sixth form. New courses were added, many with a more vocational emphasis, and this year the staying-on rate rose to 60 per cent.
Anne Carhart arrived from a comprehensive in Lewisham, south-east London, where she had been head for eight years. When she took up the reins she was one of London's youngest female secondary heads at the age of 37.
"I think there was incredible complacency here," she says. "This school has six cluster primaries that feed it and all the pupils came here. In London, you have to fight for pupils and market your school. I found a very capable workforce that needed bringing into the 21st century. A lot of old attitudes and ideas about education were still alive and kicking.
"It was a Maesteg staff. Between 80 and 90 per cent of teachers were from the area and a lot had been pupils here themselves. There were teachers here who had not taught anywhere else and their teaching methodology needed developing."
An initial problem was persuading staff to open up their classrooms for lesson observations so that good practice could be shared.
She adds: "We developed the role of learning support staff. That was a change in culture, getting staff used to having other staff in their classroom."
She also set about turning the school into a proper comprehensive. "A school cannot call itself a comprehensive unless it is meeting the needs of all the pupils, from the gifted and talented to those with special educational needs," she says. "A child designated special needs in Year 7 was marginalised in separate classrooms, with separate teachers who just taught special needs pupils.
"There was a focus on raising the self-esteem of the pupils. Children had low expectations of themselves and what they thought they were capable of."
She was told pupil behaviour was the biggest problem she faced. But she adds: "I wanted to take the agenda away from behaviour into teaching methods. I refused to talk about behaviour at meetings."
Now she has overcome her shock, she is committed to staying. "I do miss London and the diversity of working with different cultures, but I always thought I would return some day," she says.