A case of carrots, sticks and can-do

21st November 1997 at 00:00
HARRIS CTC, SOUTH LONDON

Lyndon Jones's phone has not stopped ringing all day. He has been interviewed by four national newspapers and two television stations and there's another one lined up for first thing in the morning.

But the principal of Harris City Technology College in south London is not complaining. "It's a nice problem to have," he smiles.

Mr Jones's nice problem is that Harris CTC has just topped the league tables of improving schools. Their five-plus A* to C GCSEs pass rate has leapt from 27 per cent in 1994 to 64 per cent this year and everyone wants to know why.

"I think it's very much to do with the partnership between industry and education," says Mr Jones. He is just as keen to trumpet Harris's other achievements - seven successive year-on-year improvements and a five-and-a-half-fold increase in exam passes from a low of 11.7 per cent when the college was founded in 1990.

"What we have managed to do is combine the drive of industry with the best practice in education. A lot of management techniques translate very well into the world of education."

This means all the usual mechanisms of target-setting, benchmarking, evaluation and monitoring, and one unusual one - performance-related pay bonuses. This carrot-and-stick tactic is one example of Mr Jones's approach to running the college, mixing rigorous standards with rewards. This is a lesson he learned from a former inspector who was attached to the college.

"The last thing she said to me before she retired was 'don't forget to monitor the learning in the classroom.' We spend a lot of time observing learning and teaching in order to inform future practice. It's very important indeed. "

So teachers frequently drop in on each other's lessons - "I wanted to make the whole thing non-threatening" - and the performances of boys, girls and children of different ethnic groups are monitored and acted upon.

Nationally it may be a problem but, he says, "underacheivement of African-Caribbean boys doesn't happen here".

The college is also a centre of research and development into dyslexia. Its main benefactor Lord Harris of Peckham, who put in Pounds 1.5 million of the Pounds 8.8m spent on the transformation from school to CTC, is himself a sufferer.

In the carpeted foyer (Lord Harris made his millions in floor coverings), colourful records of extra curricular "enrichment" activities like Physically Challenged Sports Day and Event Week cover the walls, emphasising the can-do ethos behind the college's motto All Can Achieve.

Mr Jones is quick to praise his staff who, he says, have been "teaching out of their skins. Not only going the extra mile but going the full marathon".

The CTC draws on a wide catchment area of 60 feeder primary schools from the five surrounding boroughs. It's a mixed intake if ever there was one, and a popular choice - this week interviews began of the 1,100 applicants for 180 places. A far cry from the time seven years ago when Harris was first choice for only 40 applicants.

From its position high on a hill in south London, Lyndon Jones hopes Harris CTC will serve as a beacon of optimism and a shining example for so-called failing schools.

After all, it used to be one itself. Before it was rebuilt, renamed and reinvented as a CTC, Harris was called Sylvan High School.

A ballot in favour of retaining its school status was controversially declared invalid, and the new institution inherited all of the problems - but only six of the teachers - of a school slowly demoralised by its uncertain fate and poor record.

"When you get a change of name and a change of direction that can be the impetus that was needed. I would hope that the 18 so-called failing schools will take heart from what we have achieved, because we have been there - we have come from the doldrums.

"For a school with a comprehensive intake, it has been a remarkable turnaround."

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