Angela Walsh (below) is using leadership incentive grant money to bring the world - and other schools - to benefit her pupils. Jill Parkin reports
The new building at Ridgeway high school is shaped like the prow of a ship.
It points towards the wide Mersey estuary and Liverpool. But between the school and the world beyond is another sea - of rundown housing and some of the worst child poverty in Britain.
"A lot of my kids can't afford the bus fare into Liverpool, so we have to bring Liverpool to them," says Angela Walsh, head of this 830-pupil secondary school in Birkenhead on the Wirral. "We have to bring the world to them. There's 75 per cent unemployment out there on the Beechwood estate."
When it comes to bringing the world to her kids, any initiative, any funding, any government pilot is brought into service. One of the best so far, says Ms Walsh, is the leadership incentive grant (LIG). Ridgeway is in a collaborative with four other all-ability schools and two Catholic grammar schools.
Most Ridgeway parents are keen on education, seeing it as the key to a life better than their own for their children. A recent questionnaire for parents of Years 7, 8 and 9 produced - after a few phone calls - a 100 per cent response. Nevertheless, the first thing is to get all the children into school.
"The collaborative has employed an attendance worker to go round knocking on doors," she says, "building up relationships with the families and getting the children to come to school. Children in one street might be going to five different schools, so collaborating made a lot of sense."
The ship-shaped building is the dual-use city learning centre. Ms Walsh's brief to the architects was to mask the ugly and cheap 1970s school with something stylish to give a good image to the passing M53 traffic. As far as the head of Ridgeway is concerned, appearance is more than skin deep.
"In my younger days, when I was teaching languages, I ran some short language courses for adults at Eton College," she says. "I know all there is to know about the importance of presentation. Those Eton boys are brought up believing they're the best. Well, I want to instil that in the pupils of Ridgeway high."
There are times during a conversation with Angela Walsh when life seems like a L'Oreal advert. "Because you're worth it" could easily be the school's motto. If it were, it would be stitched in gold thread on a blazer breast badge, because Walsh's pupils are smart, smart, smart.
"We asked them what uniform they wanted - boys and girls - and they said ties and blazers," she says. "You ask kids out of those streets and they'll tell you they don't want to look 'like a scally'. Well, now they don't.
They look smarter than a lot of the grammar school kids.
"Some of our LIG money has gone on rewards, and the most popular are the badges and tiepins. They are nicely made and colour-coded for subject. And they all wear them with pride."
Ms Walsh opens her study door to hail a passing Year 10 pupil and asks him to show me his work folders. They are smart blue with a gold school crest.
"No. Each child has a pack of folders and payspound;5 for it," she explains. "They are given time to get the money together and obviously we help those who really can't, but the fact is they have to value things more if they've paid for them. Similarly, when we had a 'take your work home to your parents' week, each child was given - free this time - a smart multi-sectioned case. So it enforces the message at home that schoolwork is important."
The leadership grant is very much the latest part of an improvement package at Ridgeway. A lot of good work was done under the now expired social improvement fund. Walsh's view is that three years on, when the scheme has gone, there will be other ways of continuing the good work of the collaborative, although some of its benefits have been specific to the way it was set up.
"The peer-review sessions were astonishing," she says. "For years in education it's been a matter of bums on seats, of being scared to share problems in case someone steals your children. LIG makes you realise that one school can't provide everything it needs on its own and that collaborative work is the way forward.
"And yes, collaboration with the grammar schools works too. They may want more As and A*s while we want more Cs, but there are things on the common agenda too, such as children's behaviour.
"Academically, we've linked with Wirral grammar school for girls for joint staff training on accelerated learning. We have gifted and talented children going to the grammar schools for extra sessions after school.
"One of the most exciting things we're doing is seconding a teacher for one afternoon a week for a year to work alongside a teacher in one of the other schools. We're each putting a teacher in the pot and coming out with enhanced skills and improved results. That means that if I want a teacher in a particular subject for one afternoon a week for a term, I get that teacher.
"Our LIG plan has a special focus on maths. We're going to use our city learning centre for cutting-edge training in maths teaching for the collaborative. We're looking for ways to give learning the wow factor.
School mustn't be boring. We have to send those kids home buzzing."
The city learning centre, with its computer suites, film screens and conference centre, definitely has the wow factor. It is a key part of the school's bid for international business and enterprise specialist status.
When a Ridgeway choir sang in St Mark's Square in Venice, children were given a CD-Rom of the performance and those without the hardware at home brought their parents to school to watch it.
"We're setting up a team-teaching computer link with a school on the east coast of America, and when the school orchestra goes to Barcelona in July, the children and parents will watch it all on our big screen," Walsh explains.
"Communication with parents is vital to improvement. Under LIG we have a three-year plan to improve it. We've used the incentive money to send a CD of all the school practical lessons home to the parents.
"As part of that plan, we got complete parental backing to extend the school day for those children who don't have a home atmosphere that is conducive to schoolwork. They have extra tuition and homework time at school. We feed them and we taxi them home. And on Tuesdays we have 90 Year 10 pupils staying until 4.30 to do their IT GCSE. We feed them and bus them home."
The results are plain to see. It took a few seasons to get Ridgeway results above the mimimum level the Government thinks acceptable: 25 per cent top-grade GCSEs. They are now running at 47 per cent. And the target by the end of the incentive scheme in three years' time is 70 per cent.
"It is part of our ethos to hammer home the importance of GCSE results," she says. "We've been doing early entry IT for some time because it improves results. We're using LIG funding to improve our teacher-pupil ratio in set four, so those children who are just below the middle can get their Cs.
"We have built very strong links with local businesses and industry. At a time when many secondary schools are making languages optional at 14, we're broadening the range by introducing Spanish.
"Each faculty has been given some LIG money to buy in expertise, whether it's an Apple Mac for the graphics department or partnership with a local stock exchange consultancy.
"It's all part of bringing the world closer for our children. Contact with the world brings confidence and that brings success."
Here on the estates of Birkenhead, so close to the world beyond and yet so far, the phrase transformational leadership doesn't means a lot. To Angela Walsh and her collaborative colleagues, the new grant is simply another useful tool to make children's lives better.
Because they're worth it.