Clarkson, we're hot on your tail

4th January 2008 at 00:00
The head of a Cotswold comp is after the Top Gear presenter to inspire pupils. Her persistence is one reason why her school has been turned round, writes Irena Barker. The Daleks also help.

Headteacher Ann Holland is stalking Jeremy Clarkson. She's already popped up at three of the Top Gear presenter's book signings to grab his attention. But Mrs Holland doesn't have some kind of unhealthy obsession with the tight-trousered enemy of climate-change campaigners. No, the devoted head is trying to convince him to visit her school, only six miles away from his country pad in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds.

"I shall keep going, as he is inspiring a lot of boys to get into reading," she says. "We'll keep on until he agrees to give an assembly".

This persistence has helped Mrs Holland build The Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water into an extremely successful comprehensive, taking advantage of its setting at the heart of one of England's most picturesque areas.

Twelve years ago, it was an unpopular local comp which inspectors warned was in danger of failing. But the numbers achieving five top-grade GCSEs have doubled to 79 per cent. Now it is classed as "outstanding" by inspectors and appears in newspaper lists of the top 100 comprehensives in the country for A-levels.

Opened in 1988 as an amalgamation of a secondary modern and a grammar, on the secondary modern site, it was always going to be a task to convince the area's many middle class parents of the school's value.

"When I first arrived in 1995 this problem was still going on, and people were sending their children to the grammar and independent schools" says Mrs Holland. "One particularly posh woman in the village said she would send her child to the school over her dead body. But in the end, she did, and I think she was surprised."

Mrs Holland started out by introducing a zero-tolerance policy on behaviour. She then began a campaign to bring in the best teachers and woo parents. She saw courting the local press as an essential way of telling the community what was going on. Her office is now wall papered with cuttings.

"I knew it was a good school and there were great things going on, but we had to convince people this was the case," she says. "We didn't have to put a gloss on anything, we were just honest."

She also took parents on guided tours of the school, refusing to delegate the job to anyone else.

There are now more than 1,000 pupils at the comprehensive, all of whom the headteacher says she knows by name. The intake is highly mixed, from the children of lorry drivers and local publicans to Oxford academics.

This part of Gloucestershire has surprisingly large pockets of deprivation. The school has to be flexible to cope with the range of children and families it serves.

It is not just the social mix that has helped the Cotswold School become successful. The area itself, with its chocolate box villages, hotels and BBs, celebrities and local customs has added a richness to school life.

Two good examples can been seen in the school's work as a specialist language college. A Japanese woman, who moved to Bourton because of its quintessentially English charms, offered to hold lunchtime Japanese classes. The school now provides a wider range of language courses, as well as classes for the area's BB owners.

Pupils, too, are more motivated than usual to learn modern languages, as the majority of the older ones have jobs in the area's tea shops and hotels.

Frances Hudson, head of modern languages, said: "They often come up to me and say they've spoken to visitors from abroad in their own language." The school even occasionally translates local literature and guidebooks for tourists.

In science too, the delights of the Cotswolds have proved useful. There are adders in the school field (the football pitch is marked with warning signs) and a wide diversity of local wildlife, handy for biology lessons. The plentiful Cotswold stone of both old and new buildings provides a useful lesson in rocks and weathering. And the nearby perfumery in Bourton gives inspiration to aspiring chemists.

Even in the design and technology department there is local influence. Pupils work with high-quality wood donated by local craftsmen, farmers and flooring companies. Groundsman Gareth Davies, the school's resident Doctor Who expert, has inspired pupils by building five full-size replica Daleks.

"We are very lucky to be where we are and we are proud to have such a wide social mix," said Mrs Holland, whose evident devotion to the school means she rarely arrives home before 9pm.

Cotswold celebrities such as Liz Hurley and Kate Winslet may not yet be considering sending their children to the school. But Charlotte Fothergill, the head girl, was invited to read at a carol service in Stow-on-the-Wold at Christmas alongside Alex James from Blur and the former Tory foreign secretary Lord Douglas Hurd.

And actor Tom Watt (Lofty in Eastenders) recently joined other prospective parents on a tour of the school. A visit from Jeremy Clarkson can only be a matter of time.

Tally Ho! Roast pheasant for lunch

The influence of the local area on The Cotswold School goes as far as the school dinners. Long before Jamie Oliver brought butternut squash to school canteens, the comprehensive was serving roast pheasant for lunch.

Chef Caroline Wrightson, who trained in the kitchens of the pound;300-a-night Lords of the Manor Hotel in nearby Upper Slaughter, was Mrs Holland's first appointment to the school. She sources food locally, where possible, and uses vegetables grown in the school's garden and yoghurts from a local farm.

The school also makes some concessions to the traditions of the area. Sarah Hanks, one of its three site managers, has every Wednesday afternoon off to go out with the local Heythrop hunt, which uses foxhounds to pursue a rag with a fox-based scent.

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