'Bringing back old things like good behaviour'

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Award-winning head Philip Jones says it's the small things that have boosted GCSE pass rates

Original paper headline: `It's all about bringing back old things like good behaviour'

Teaching award winners are often self-effacing, typically accepting modest praise for their efforts and giving full credit to their staff and pupils. Philip Jones, who has just begun his fourth year of headship at Heolddu Comprehensive School in Caerphilly, is no exception.

After overseeing a massive improvement in the school's academic and behavioural record, he was made Headteacher of the Year in a Secondary School in Wales in June. But Mr Jones earnestly believes the ingredients for success were already present at the school.

"When I went for the interview, I met the then head girl, who gave me what was probably the toughest grilling I'd ever had," he said. "It was great to see the passion coming out of that kid. The school had an inspection in 2005 which wasn't the best, but I thought if they were turning out kids like her, it can't be that bad."

Over the past three years, Heolddu's GCSE pass rate has shot up from around 30 per cent to more than half of pupils getting five A*-C grades, while A-level passes rose from around 80 to 100 per cent.

Mr Jones, who grew up near Neath, is wary of analysing the improvement too forensically, but puts it down to small but effective changes.

"The community hasn't changed, the staff haven't changed," he said. "It's really all about raising expectations and bringing back old things like discipline and good behaviour."

From the start of his headship, the school cracked down on clothing policy, which included wearing uniform during exams. Mobile phones were banned for both teachers and pupils, and children were forbidden from going off the premises at break and lunchtimes, which immediately improved relations with the local community.

Instead, staff started up new lunchtime clubs such as kickboxing, table tennis, Scrabble and gardening, as well as homework and revision sessions. A comprehensive mentoring scheme was also set up.

"We started by targeting Year 11 with coursework clubs and filtered it through the year groups," said Mr Jones. "Now, if a child is underachieving in Year 7 they have mentoring, including `peer mentoring' by sixth formers.

"We tell the kids, `You don't have to leave the valley to be a success.' It's not just a city thing."

Children from well outside the catchment area now apply to the school because of its special educational needs provision. Pupils with autism have access to a special safe room, staffed by a specialist learning support assistant, where they can go if they are experiencing problems.

"I did a lot of listening before I started here, and I'm very fortunate to have a very experienced staff and senior management team," said Mr Jones. "I can come up with ideas and they tell me they tried that 10 years ago and it didn't work."

He said there is a tremendous rapport between teachers and pupils.

"Our attendance rate went up from 80 per cent to 92 per cent in three years, which was fantastic," he said. "But last year the rate went up 0.8 per cent, which gives us just as much satisfaction because, at this point, you're dealing with individuals and you know you're winning hearts and minds."

Staff attendance has also shot up and is now the highest in Caerphilly. The school's teachers say there is a greater sense of self-belief among staff and higher expectations of what pupils can achieve.

Mike Cleverly, deputy head, said: "[Mr Jones] has come in with lots of enthusiasm. He spends lots of time with pupils who are not quite achieving. You can never get in his room because there's always a pupil there."

Lowri, a sixth-former and deputy head girl, said pupils now have much better relationships with their teachers.

"I never spoke to the old head, but you feel friendship with the teachers now and you can speak to anyone," she said. "Lessons are quieter and you don't notice so many people chucked out in the corridors. You want to prove the teachers right, so you work harder."

Child's Play

Heolddu Comprehensive is the first secondary in Wales to host a Flying Start provision for children up to three years old. The creche is based in an old classroom in the main building, with an outdoor play area. Philip Jones, the school's head, believes it is an important part of the school.

"It means the community comes on to the site for a different reason and allows them to engage with health services," he said. "We are working on getting a doctor and dentist involved, and trying to tie in with the nearby leisure centre. Our PE department has even done a fitness lesson with the kids."

Staff are also working with the local college to provide a childcare course so that pupils can get practical experience at the creche.

"I look at it as a positive," said Mr Jones. "If there's one thing that puts people off having kids, it's 10 of them screaming in a room. I think it shows them the real world. This year we haven't had a pregnancy in key stage 4."

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