Giving pupils a say may be as important as firm leadership and high expectations among staff. Kate Myers visits a secondary which listens to its clientele.
The teachers are the best thing about Charles Burrell High School, according to the students I spoke to. "They don't treat you like a child unless you behave like one," was the view of Year 9 students - a sentiment echoed by Year 11s.
Three years ago this brave staff decided to ask the pupils what they thought about their Thetford school, their teachers and their lessons. A number of points raised in this confidential survey have now been acted on in a school which shows clear indications of improvement.
Charles Burrell is the result of reorganisation 12 years ago. It is now a 12 to 18 mixed high school with 500 pupils, serving a London overspill council estate built in the Sixties. Unemployment is high and 21 per cent of the students are eligible for free school meals.
Quite a few staff pre-date the reorganisation, and many parents were pupils at the secondary modern once on the same site.
Although haunted by a secondary modern tradition, this is not a school with low aspiring staff - or students. According to the recent favourable OFSTED report, educational achievement at entry is low compared to most other schools in the county, but standards of achievement at key stages 3 and 4 are "usually appropriate and sometimes high in relation to the pupils' abilities".
Chris Wragg, the head since reorganisation, has a fervent belief in the importance of a strong pastoral system and in particular a house system. He has been monitoring exam results for many years and agrees that the publication of results has helped shift the attitude from "blaming anything but ourselves" to one of "stopping making excuses and asking how can we improve things".
The student questionnaire was devised and administered with the help of David Hopkins from the Cambridge Institute of Education. Follow-up interviews, undertaken by Robert Ogden, at the time a curriculum co-ordinator, then took place with 20 per cent of Year 11. The students were promised their contributions would be kept confidential but the generalised findings would be fed back to the staff and acted upon.
A number of initiatives have indeed followed, some of them in direct response to the students' opinions. Pupils wanted to be treated as people, recognised in corridors, questioned in class and rewarded for good work. Teaching and learning strategies encourage participation and questioning. All staff have chosen a partner for peer classroom observation. A "homework watch" scheme, monitored by the head, picks up students who are failing to do it. Staff on duty sit with and speak to pupils.
Detentions are still given for bad behaviour but students who do not get their work in on time are not punished but invited to "catch-up" sessions at lunchtime or after school. They are free to go as soon as the work is completed; often the work is handed in beforehand.
GCSE students are also encouraged to go to "improvement" sessions run voluntarily by all departments. In addition, staff devise action plans to support borderline grade CD GCSE students and report on the success of these strategies to the senior management team.
Two years ago, a training day was used to describe these strategies. This was a catalytic event; staff acknowledged that they could indeed make a difference to pupils' educational performance.
Through the auspices of the local Compact scheme, Pounds 5 Woolworths gift voucher are awarded to students who achieve 90 per cent plus attendance and those with the most merit points. Other strategies include a student planner and interim computerised reports six times a year, so students and parents are aware of progress.
Two years ago Mike Birmingham, one of the deputies, invited Year 9 parents to join a parents' advisory group. Instead of giving up when faced with the familiar disappointing response, he targeted 50 parents and spent much time making personal contact. Once established, this now flourishing core group wrote a leaflet about the school called "Parent to Parent" and distributed it around the town. They played a prominent role at the meeting for the prospective intake and one has recently been involved in producing the school assessment policy.
Seven teachers choose to send their own children to the school. I was also impressed by the number of long-serving staff who are still keen, enthusiastic and motivated and by the number of pupils who wanted to become teachers - which must say something about their own experience.
Exam results have increased from five years ago when 14 per cent of students obtained five A to Cs, to 20 per cent last year. Not a miraculous turnaround but evidence of sustained improvement.
Kate Myers is an associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement centre, (ISEIC) Institute of Education, University of London.