Four years ago life at Middlefield School was grim. A secondary modern in Gainsborough, it was very much the poor relation in the Lincolnshire market town. Only 2 per cent of pupils achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE.
A grammar and a grant-maintained school in Gainsborough attracted the more able pupils and some parents were sending their children to comprehensives outside town. Numbers at Middlefield dwindled away to half the school's capacity; one building was mothballed, morale was low and the school seemed doomed.
"We had all been put down too much," explains head girl Amy Slack. "There was just no point in working."
But last year the number of A to Cs shot up to 29 per cent. Middlefield was the third-highest state school in the league table of most improved schools in England and Wales - and it had the lowest 1995 base of any in the top 50.
Now children in all age groups are working and there is growing pride in being a Middlefield pupil. For the first time, parents are enquiring about places there, and a handful of pupils who passed the 11-plus have chosen to go to Middlefield rather than the grammar.
What has turned things round? "We have created a culture of achievement," says headteacher Michael Rose. "It has changed the climate of the school and changed attitudes to learning."
The catalyst was the arrival of Barry Tointon as acting headteacher in December 1997. As Wendy Carrick, deputy head, explains: "We had always had people who could drive the place forward, but they weren't in senior positions. We had an award system, but the approach was fragmented. It wasn't until Mr Tointon came that things started to move. He was able to look at the school objectively, as an outsider. "The trigger was the introduction of a 'house' system which enabled vertical social mixing. Contests and competitions were introduced.
"The children needed something to be involved in, something where they could win awards. They wanted to try hard for each other," she says. The house system has had a tremendous impact. It was as if the kids suddenly started believing in themselves. We souped up the reward system in January 1998, we linked it to the house system and then we started the Good Work Assembly."
Now good work is rewarded with house points, and 10 house points means a smart certificate awarded at the regular Friday morning Good Work Assembly. Exceptional totals are rewarded with a free gym or swim session at a nearby sports centre or free cinema tickets. Term totals go towards awards handed out at end-of-term assemblies when children can receive book tokens and pencils, sports bags, mugs and rulers stamped with the school logo.
The contrast between "then" and "now" is huge says Wendy Carrick. Children have got into the habit of working.
"The lessons just seemed to drag on and we felt we were working for nothing," says Alex Daley of Year 11. "Now people are trying, and we know we are capable."
During the autumn term 70 per cent of the school received certificates and awards. But Michael Rose insists that certificates are not thrown around like wedding confetti; they have to be earned and discipline is tight. The reward system does not necessarily favour only clever children and it is not always for the best work - it rewards potential and effort.
Certificates are not given out as an inducement to unruly children in the desperate hope that they will sit down and work. If there are problems with a pupil, the pupil and tutor will meet and set targets together. Everything is recorded in a plannerdiary (each child has his or her own planner), and the pupil's parents will be called into school. If those measures don't work the pupil spends a day working alone, supervised by a senior member of staff.
All that a teacher has to do is decide that something - it has to be exceptional - merits a house point. House points are entered in the child's planner.
Dave Gates, the school's pastoral head who instigated the reward system, remembers walking along corridors after the first few weeks and being surprised to hear children talking about work, grades and progress. He readily admits that the reward system has not been an overnight sensation, but the new attitude to work is having welcome spin-offs with the way children conduct themselves around school. There is a noticeable lack of tension and anger and little of the grubbiness, such as scuffed paintwork and scratches, associated with uncaring pupils. A neatly mounted art display near an outside door was not scuffed or torn and when the door was not being used, it was kept shut.
"We have put the empha-sis on achieving and good behaviour," says Wendy Carrick. "Then the children who aren't working are suddenly out of step - and soon they want to be in with the 'in' crowd."
She is all too aware that Middlefield children have seen themselves as second- class citizens because they did not get into the grammar or the high school. The reward system has helped their self-esteem.
"We have to make them believe in themselves, to expect well of themselves, and they do," she says. "They have raised their game."
The Middlefield children certainly cherish their certificates. Letters to parents might get blown around wet streets, but not those precious certificates. Ben Musgrave, from Year 7, says his father took his first certificate to work and had it laminated.
The mugs and pencils are treated with equal reverence. "I've put my pencil away in a special box," explains Lee Fisher, of Year 9. "My dad said I should treasure it, and when I'm older I can look at it and say: 'I earned that at my school.'" Wendy Carrick remembers a bitter-sweet moment from the GCSE results day last August: "We heard a tremendous cheer from one group of boys when they opened their envelopes. As they came out, one of them said, to the head of English: 'This is as good as I could have got if I'd gone to the high school, isn't it?' "My colleague said: 'Hey, it's better than most of them down there will have got.' "The boy thought for a moment and queried: 'It is, isn't it?'" "It's sad. He's had that cloud over him for five years," says Wendy Carrick. "It's an issue we simply have to tackle."
HOW TO RAISE ACHIEVEMENT.
How do you introduce a culture of achievement? Gradually, say Middlefield's teachers. This is their advice:
* The same message has to come from everybody, so every member of staff has to be committed. The children need to know that every subject and every area of school life has value.
* Talk to children about what they think is important and what should be rewarded. Children with low self-esteem need ambition, so encourage realistic ambitions.
* Don't be complacent, and be prepared to change and adapt. A handful of Middlefield students now have lots of certificates, so end-of-year rewards are being looked at as an alternative. A progress profile is being introduced to give children clear information about their performance in each subject. The message is: "It is important what you have achieved so far. We want to take it further."
DAMNED DESPITE PRAISE.
Reward systems may not work in schools where staff turnover and absences are high, because to operate well they need a consistent approach.
In recent press reports on the proposed sacking of the entire staff at Alderman Derbyshire School at Bulwell, Nottingham, because of failing standards, the rewarding of unruly pupils' good behaviour with free CD vouchers and cinema tickets was highlighted.
According to headteacher John Dryden no vouchers for CDs or cinema tickets were handed out, but 67 pupils were taken to Alton Towers theme park as a reward for improved attendance. "If we had tried that in the previous year, we would not have had a car full," he says.
Alderman Derbyshire's mainstream reward system, based on achievement, has proved popular with pupils, but the school has had problems with teacher recruitment and retention, and long-term illnesses involving key staff, making it hard to ensure consistency. The school is now to be renamed and revamped under the Government's Fresh Start programme.