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Right on the mark

A school in Hertford has just won approval from the Cabinet Office. Nicholas Pyke explains.

Peter Loach is pinned down in the school library where "Religion", right overhead, is causing him discomfort. The Charter Mark inspector wants to know why Thursday's act of worship contained lots of rugby announcements but no prayers.

It was, as it happens, an innocent cock-up. There is nothing irreligious about the Richard Hale School in Hertford, which counts four bishops, all living, among its old boys. But for senior manager Mr Loach this was a bad start to a difficult morning. With his back to the bookstacks, he got two hours of gentlemanly toasting from an expert in something called "customer interface": a mind-twisting miasma of response times, complaints, and consultation procedure.

"Do you have non-academic targets?" asks the inspector, Terry Diggins. "Targets for administrative procedures? How many times the phone rings before it's picked up, for example? What target discussions do you have with parents?" It got worse. Mr Diggins is a very polite man who used to work with the Inland Revenue. That was before he retired and got a new life as part-time prober of public institutions on behalf of the Citizens Charter. But here he seems to think he is dealing with a catering franchise, a car dealership or possibly a railway station.

"The name-badge situation - what's the policy on name badges?" He really wants to know. "Are your pupils consulted on the code of conduct? Do you have a specific customer care policy? Are your pupils consulted about the ski trip?" Taken aback, Peter Loach mounts a heroic, if less than enlightening defence. "There's a process that means we would deal with that," he begins. "That decision was taken before I arrived . . . we're looking into how we measure it . . . I would have to confirm that . . . we would want to monitor it . . . we may consult with Year 9."

He need not have worried. The Richard Hale School had, near as damn it, been awarded its Charter Mark before the inspector set foot in the place. As Mr Diggins later explains, these tricky questions were the ones the school failed to answer in its original, compendious, submission for an award. And it doesn't really matter if it fails to answer them now. The Richard Hale School is doing very well indeed, and not even the obscure workings of the Citizens Charter and its Cabinet Office controllers can hide the fact.

The school features among the top 60 named in the latest annual report from the Chief Inspector of Schools. Last month it appeared in the Government's list of the 100 schools with the most improved exam results. In August the proportion of its pupils getting five top-grade GCSEs rose to 60 per cent, which is rare for an all-boys comprehensive. And now it boasts the giant grey rosette-cum-cogwheel of the Citizens Charter, a distinction it shares with South Ribble Borough Council Parks Service and the Benefits Agency, Lothian West District.

It isn't easy to get a Charter Mark cog-wheel, a fact which partly accounts for its low profile. Roughly half of all applications are rejected. This year has seen the biggest haul of winners from the education sector so far; but there were still only 70, including colleges and nurseries as well as schools. They picked up their prizes at a ceremony in central London this week.

"It sometimes happens that a school will get a very good Ofsted report and fail to get a charter mark," explains a Cabinet Office official. "But it rarely happens the other way around."

The award shows that Richard Hale has scored well across a range of criteria, including: information and openness; consultation and choice; courtesy and helpfulness; putting things right; value for money; user satisfaction; improvements in service quality; planned improvements. And more.

Ray James, headteacher at Richard Hale, has entered into the spirit. "We pride ourselves on being responsive to parents, pupils, and others in the community, with a particular focus on service delivery," he says. "But we thought it would be a good thing to get some one independent to see if we're kidding ourselves or not - someone to say, yes, you're doing what you say you do. It is also very good for morale."

Richard Hale has a long and distinguished history. The original Mr Hale was a wealthy merchant who set up a grammar school in 1617 "for the instruction of children in the Latin tongue and other literature". But his successors were feeling far from distinguished when Ray James arrived in 1993. The school was in the doldrums, with only 70 boys a year asking to come. The turnaround has been dramatic: last year it had 170 applications, far more than it could cope with, and is popular with pupils and parents alike. When he finishes torturing Mr Loach, Terry Diggins moves on to the well-scrubbed boys from the School Council, but they refuse to criticise, despite vigorous encouragement. He meets a group of teachers, who fail to find fault with the school, despite prompting, and a group of parents so fanatically behind Richard Hale that Mr Diggins doesn't even bother.

The Charter Mark has never suffered the ignominious fate of the cones hotline, another piece of public-minded Majorism, but it has so failed to grip the public imagination that many assume it to be defunct. This could explain a recent flurry of publicity and the launch of a government consultation programme on its future. As could the presence of an enormously well-staffed unit in the Cabinet Office which, without the Charter Mark, would have nothing to do.

They might, in the interests of its future success, like to think about some new publicity. The current poster features a large man with a beard and an open-necked shirt purporting to be a teacher. As the Cabinet Office privately concedes, they should have used an actor.

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