when the Labour MP Clare Short played teacher for a week for a television programme, she chose to wash her hair one morning rather than turn up early to greet the pupils. Bad decision. At the school in question, Southfields community college in Wandsworth, west London, welcoming pupils to its popular breakfast club is considered an important part of the day. Staff commitment is total and nobody, however senior, is considered exempt.
"Students are welcomed by a member of the senior management team wearing proper (business) clothes," says Alison Jerrard, deputy head for student support, immaculate in her skirt and heels. This combination of high expectations and involvement of senior managers runs right through everything the school does, not least its programme to support the attainment of Afro-Caribbean boys.
Southfields sits in the less favoured part of Wandsworth, on the edge of an industrial estate, but with good grounds and sports facilities as befits a specialist sports college (designated in 2000). Its 1,250 pupils do not come from the leafy suburbs of Putney and Wimbledon, but from the large estates of Clapham, Tooting and Battersea, many travelling three miles or more to get to the school. Thirty-seven per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals. Nearly one in five, 18 per cent, are from an Afro-Caribbean background. It is one of only two non-selective secondary schools in a largely selective borough.
Given all these characteristics, its GCSE results are creditable. Last summer, 33 per cent of pupils achieved five or more A* to Cs. That was, not surprisingly, well below the borough average of 47 per cent. But the figure for Afro-Caribbean pupils, at 39 per cent, was above the borough average of 36 per cent for that group of pupils. Praised by inspectors as a "good and improving" school, with 98 per cent of teaching good or better, it has also won the inspectors' admiration for its inclusive approach and high success rate with Afro-Caribbean boys - hence its selection as one of the three pilot schools for the attainment project.
At the start of the project, in 2003, the school chose to involve all of the known Afro-Caribbean boys entering Year 7. Each was given an individual academic tutor - often a senior manager - who kept a close eye on his progress. In addition, the boys took part in a group session every few weeks to discuss issues such as homework, the transition from primary to secondary school, and their aims and ambitions.
"It's all about achieving a balance," says Derrick Lowe, lead practitioner on the project and head of the school's vocational access programme.
"Showing the boys that you can be cool and get educated as well."
Now, in the second year, a homework club has been introduced on Wednesdays for Afro-Caribbean boys in Years 7 and 8. Jonathan Millington, assistant head for key stage 3, is wary of the notion that Afro-Caribbean pupils need a special teaching approach. "I can't change the cultural history of years and years and I can't change a child's socio-economic background," he says.
"All I can do is offer a good quality of education. But I realise there is a homework issue - so let's do something about it."
The Afro-Caribbean boys at Southfields have plenty of black role models to emulate: 18 per cent of the staff are black, including the assistant head for ethos and two women heads of science.
Many of these have been trained within the school, which offers 22 graduate trainee placements every year. "We have a difficulty with recruitment so we train them ourselves," says Mrs Jerrard.
And staff are trained to treat all their pupils with respect. "Nobody shouts or uses sarcasm," she says.