Holland Park School may be in London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but it is no school for toffs. An inner-city school with 1,450 pupils, it has a very fluid population, including students from bed and breakfast accommodation and from refugee families. Staff describe it as "a challenging environment in which to teach".
The school's turnover in some years reaches 20 per cent, and for much of the time little more than half of those taking GCSE have been in the school from Year 7. More than 60 languages other than English are spoken as first languages, and more than 400 pupils are on the special needs register.
Any success in raising achievement against this background is to be applauded. Success on the scale managed by the science department deserves to be not only celebrated, but studied for the lessons it provides.
The bare figures themselves are exciting, because of what they say about better opportunities and increased self-esteem for young people. Taking the usual GCSE success measure of "percentage A* to C", the story goes like this. In 1991, the success rate was 17 per cent; in 1992, 22 per cent; 1993, 28 per cent; 1994, 31 per cent; 1995, 40 per cent; and in 1996, 51 per cent. Last year the figure slipped back to 40 per cent, but the trend is clear, and is supported by the percentage of A* to G grades that has been consistently higher than 95 per cent for the past three years. At the other end of the scale, the percentage of "U" grades has steadily declined to 3 per cent.
A-level results are similarly excellent. Take-up of the subject has been increasing, points scores have been improving, and grades across the sciences are now almost all above national averages. The story in GNVQ Inter-mediate Science is much the same, and end of key stage 3 test results have also moved up over three years.
Ask the head of a successful department about the magic formula and the answer is consistently the same: "There isn't one." Graham Driver, who became head of science at Holland Park in 1991, is no exception. "There's no single factor. It's a combination of things," he says.
One of the keys must be his own professionalism and personality. On the surface a quiet, self-effacing man, Graham Driver quickly warms to his subject and demonstrates a clear understanding of and enthusiasm for his department and what makes it tick. Here is a style of leadership based on consistently making good decisions - and then ensuring they stick, with the aid of excellent organisational and personal skills.
Meticulous in this, he lists what he feels are the keys to his department's performance:
* Short-term goals: "The whole course is modular from Year 7 to Year 13 - we do NEAB modular exam syllabuses in key stage 4 and at A-level. This provides short-term goals all the way through, with constant feedback and experience of success."
* Use of data for setting pupil targets: "This is a data-driven department. We record as much as we can. Tests and assessments are used to build up a database showing each pupil's performance over time."
* Practical work: "There's a great emphasis on practical work. Pupils enjoy this as a contrast with the amount of sitting and writing that they do in other subjects. It gives them a different sort of experience."
* The profile of the subject: "We have corridor displays; we have special awards and we enter national competitions whenever possible, with lots of celebration in assembly. There's a science club with outside visits."
* Valuing pupils: "There's lots of praise. We have personalised classroom displays, with photographs of pupils, linked to their countries of origin."
* Staff appointments: "We've been very careful in making appointments and we've built up a wide range of expertise across a department with 14 teachers - an enthusiastic and talented young team. We are very lucky to have five technicians who are all graduates."
* Mentoring: "Lower-sixth students have to mentor pupils in key stage 3 and 4 one period a week for a term-and-a-half. It's a real success. They enjoy it and many carry on voluntarily for the whole year. It increases their own skills - thinking towards the idea of key skills at A-level. We also take part in the 'Pimlico Connection' (so-called because it started at Pimlico school), whereby undergraduates from Imperial College come in once a week to act as mentors in science classes."
The main result has been to build a science department that has a strong presence not only in the school but nationally. "There's been a shift to an atmosphere of success," says Graham Driver. "Staff are keen to take on new initiatives."
They are also keen to work with him - vacancies attract high-quality candidates who then often leave quite quickly for promotion. "When they go for interview they can show that they have had this demanding and varied experience."
OFSTED, in its autumn 1997 inspection report on the school, comments favourably on the science department. "The school should consider this model of effective management (when developing) a strategy to raise standards of achievement in other departments."
Holland Park's head, Mary Marsh, who arrived at the school some time after Graham Driver took over science, confirms this approach. "It's seen as a role model for other departments. The school has always had good arts and humanities. The example that science presents is what you do with a large team and a core subject. Similar things are beginning to happen in maths."
One of the keys, she believes, "is when you get those crucial changes of staff - just two or three bringing in fresh ideas, getting your momentum going".
She points out that work nationally on value added has revealed the extent of variations between departments within schools. One way to address this without demoralising apparently less successful departments, she suggests, is to have plenty of data. "You can then look beyond the headline figure - you split it up and you find that one department, for example, may be better with lower-ability pupils. You find lots of strengths that everyone can learn from."
* DEPARTMENTS FOR CHANGE
The focus for school improvement is increasingly falling on subject leadership. OFSTED puts emphasis on the role of subject leaders as monitors of teaching and learning. The Teacher Training Agency has set up the National Professional Qualification for Headship, and is developing national standards for subject leaders.
Research has backed up the argument for this approach. Dr Pam Sammons, Dr Sally Thomas and Professor Peter Mortimore, from the University of London's Institute of Education (presented in their book "Forging Links: effective schools and effective departments", Paul Chapman Publishing), have found that in the secondary sector there is more variation in standards within than between schools. Therefore, they say school improvement should be concentrated at departmental level, using value-added measures.
Given the degree of autonomy traditionally enjoyed by secondary departments, which was often strengthened by local management of schools, it is hardly surprising that one department may well do better than another. The challenge that this sets for senior management is two-fold.
First, the performance differences have to be measured and demonstrated in terms of added value, heading off arguments about, for example, the comparative quality of the students opting for examination courses. After this, the senior management team has to create an atmosphere in which departments will be open and accepting and will learn from each other when their natural instincts might lie in other more defensive and self-justifying directions.