The Conversation: Adding value
Q: What is the profile of your pupils and their background?
A: Greenwood Dale in Nottingham is a true comprehensive: all Year 7 pupils live within a mile. Just under 800 of our 1,350 come from the most socially deprived 5 per cent of families nationally. Our free school meals are at 35 per cent; our special needs are at 40 per cent, at least.
Q: What are the main challenges the school faces?
A: Literacy. Of 230 Year 7s, one-third have a reading age of less than eight and a further third are two years behind their chronological age, which means they cannot access the secondary curriculum.
On top of that, and linked to it, some have a history of violence andor low self-esteem: they've hit and pushed other pupils and teachers. They can't express themselves, so they revert to violence. We have zero-tolerance for violence but focus intensely on helping them. As a result, I haven't had to exclude anyone permanently for two years.
Q: How does the school focus on achievement?
A: We have a separate base for Year 7. Keeping them away from the potentially destabilising influence of older brothers and friends, we work on their behaviour and communication skills. Every day they have literacy lessons from a team of five teachers and three learning mentors. They arrive with no love of reading; we encourage them to want to read and write. This help continues throughout their school careers. We are one of the few schools with its own literacy, as well as English, department.
Q: What about higher achievers?
A: We set them from the moment they come in. I'm a maths teacher and I believe in setting. When you differentiate youngsters by ability, you can target their needs.
In key stage 3, everyone learns French, but our top three sets learn Spanish as well. And they can choose Urdu at the end of Year 7.
Mentoring runs throughout the school for all abilities. Everything is targeted at making pupils believe they can be successful. Top sets take geography AS-level a year early.
Peer mentoring and paired reading are run by our sixth-formers, which develops them as well.
At present, a quarter of our pupils go to university to study everything from law to astrophysics.
Q: How do you push up GCSE grades?
A: We pour staff into GCSEs. We make tutor groups smaller, to give more pastoral care. We break the Year 11 cohort into three, each with its own director of achievement to monitor the work of six learning mentors and 12 tutors.
About half of our pupils are at risk of poor GCSEs for a variety of reasons, including truancy or laziness. For them the mentors are crucial: someone to say, "I'm going to sit with you until you finish your homework" or "I'll talk to that teacher and find out what's gone wrong." It's parenting, really.
We also make sure they have enough to eat: serving breakfast, hot meals at break, 800 nutritious lunches a day. If you're hungry, or you've only eaten crisps and processed food, it's hard to learn.
Q: Are you personally involved?
A: More than 50 per cent of our KS4 pupils consistently tell us that their parents don't talk to them about their reports. So I read every report at the end of Year 10 and interview each pupil at length at the beginning of Year 11. They and I both take it incredibly seriously. We set targets and review progress in a positive way.
I also teach a Year 11 target set. At the end of Year 10, we review the most challenging pupils in each subject, then senior staff take them on. Last year, I took 35 pupils who were predicted D, E and F grades in maths; all got Bs and Cs. My deputies and assistant heads do the same in their subjects.
Q: How do you respond to people who say that results are not the only measure?
A: That is so true, but one of the most powerful ways to break the cycle of deprivation is to help pupils achieve decent GCSEs and A-levels. In 2007, our contextual value added score was 1,069 and more than 80 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs at A-C grades, including 51 per cent in English and maths.
Our Ofsted report in 2007 rated us "outstanding" for pastoral care, but the most caring thing we can do for our pupils is to give them the tools to go further.