Climbing standards fail to save England's highest school

5th March 2010 at 00:00
'I don't know what the children will gain,' says head who salvaged Oldham's failing Counthill, only to see it turned into an academy

One of the country's fastest improving secondary schools is being forced to close as part of the drive to open more academies.

Until recently Counthill School in Oldham was best known for reputedly being the highest secondary in England, commanding spectacular views of snow-covered moors and the Manchester cityscape.

But the past two years have seen staff and pupils at the former grammar school gain local respect by coming back from the brink of special measures and under-achievement.

In 2008, when head David Lack arrived, just 23 per cent of pupils were achieving five GCSEs including English and maths.

By the following summer he had helped pull the school out of the National Challenge category, with 34 per cent meeting the benchmark and a rise from 43 to 80 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs or equivalent. This year, early GCSE entry means that 41 per cent of pupils have already attained a C or above in maths and English, putting the school on course to reach 60 per cent on the key league table indicator.

And Mr Lack believes the school could get to 90 per cent within two years, making it one of Oldham's highest performers. But the veteran head will never get the chance to find out, because Counthill will close for good in July, with pupils moving to a new academy.

"It's frustrating that we can't take it further," said Mr Lack. "If academies are being created in order to raise standards, we are showing you can do it without becoming an academy. I don't know what children from here will gain that they don't already have, other than a new building in two years' time."

Pupils have their doubts as well. "I feel like the academy is not the right way forward," said Kerris Boulton, 15. "They have said it is for failing schools, but this year's results prove that is not the case at Counthill."

Two years ago, it might have been. The secondary had come out of special measures in 2006, but local authority leaders feared it was about to slip back, and turned to Mr Lack.

After coming out of retirement - "I didn't enjoy it" - he had brought four secondaries out of special measures in 10 years. "You learn very quickly," he said. "The more you do the more you learn."

At Counthill an influx of new teachers has been a big part of the change, along with a new management structure, bolstered by expertise from the Future Leaders training scheme for aspiring heads.

A traditional grammar school approach with didactic teaching that saw all pupils entered for a conventional string of GCSEs has been ditched. Staff believe their "personalised" approach with opportunities for vocational qualifications is motivating more pupils.

Lessons have been extended to 100 minutes, more attention is given to disaffected pupils, driving them into school if necessary, and key stage 4 has been extended to three years, allowing early GCSE entry.

But Mr Lack fears the academy could actually undo some of his success by reversing a key policy of integrating academic and pastoral management.

And he believes his school's achievements may have taken Oldham Council by surprise. "They didn't expect this success," he says. "I think it has made it difficult for them. But that wasn't what we set out to do."

But the local authority said it welcomed Counthill's improvements and that the academy would secure them for the long term.

There may be more than results at stake in the new academy, which will see Counthill - where 97 per cent of pupils are white - merged with Breeze Hill School four miles away, which has a large majority of pupils from Pakistani backgrounds.

Breeze Hill serves Glodwick, the epicentre of the 2001 Oldham riots, which have made race relations a hot topic for the council ever since.

This year a Bristol University study highlighted the "particularly high" levels of racial segregation in Oldham schools.

Mr Lack argues the key to less segregated schools is academic success, attracting parents from all backgrounds. "This isn't about us staying as we are," he said. "We would like to expand it and draw people into it because we could raise everybody's standards.

"My ideal would be to create a great school that everybody wants to come to. You can't manipulate people into wanting to work together. You have to make the conditions in which they want to."

So is there any merit in the academy model at all?

"It doesn't matter," Mr Lack said. "What matters is that we provide a really good education for every child, and there isn't one formula that is going to create that."

Michael Jameson, children's services director at Oldham Council, said: "We recognise the improvements made at Counthill School and congratulate the headteacher and staff. The academy will be a state-of-the-art facility that will build on recent improvements through the effective co-operation of the leadership of both previous schools."

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