A radical approach is reaping rewards for the headmaster of a tough Brighton school. Adi Bloom reports.
Parents whose children have been allocated a place at Falmer High school generally react with undisguised distress. "Sometimes they're furious and shout at me. Sometimes they break into tears," said Antony Edkins, the school's 33-year-old head.
Falmer serves east Brighton's notorious Whitehawk and Mouslecoomb estates. Poverty is rife, with 85 per cent of households on an annual income of less than pound;15,000. Children arrive at school with little expectation of achievement.
But this is a challenge that Antony Edkins relishes. He joined the 700-pupil comprehensive in 1998, as a trouble-shooting deputy. Two years later, he took over as head. The National College for School Leadership says he was then the youngest secondary head in the country.
Driven by a powerful social conscience, he will buy 10 copies of The Big Issue in one day and regret not having change for an 11th. He hopes to create opportunities for all his students. "It's about seeing disorder and wanting to do something about it," he said. "We're creating a learning culture."
The best way to do this, he insists, is by rejecting statutory test targets. He prefers to focus on creating an environment where students feel comfortable. He has introduced a fast food-style canteen in the school dining room. A new PE department offers classes in jujitsu, yoga and wrestling. There is also an emphasis on all-round social development. Over the past three years, he has developed links with local independent schools.
"They do different activities together: sailing, maths club, art club," he said. "The kids have learned a tremendous amount in terms of self-esteem and their ability to relate to people of a different background."
His efforts to forge a sense of community became evident this summer, when one of his pupils was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Hoping to raise money to send the girl to Paris, he told pupils that he expected them to come to school for the 7.30am England-Brazil World Cup match, bringing a 50p donation. They duly complied, raising a total of pound;750 in one morning. Within the space of two months, they had collected more than pound;30,000.
His academic strategy has also had results. This year, 31 per cent of pupils achieved five A*-C grades in their GCSEs: almost double the number who scored the same grades in 1998. And, for the second year running, all students gained at least one graded GCSE.
This was a goal Mr Edkins had initially set for 2005. "Antony has done a tremendous job. He is a youngster who is going places," said David Hawker, director of education for Brighton and Hove Council.
But, more than the challenges he has faced, this success fills Mr Edkins with trepidation. "Things can move as quickly backwards as forwards. Results can go down and then everyone will be saying I'm a lousy head where they were saying I was great before."