Forget the magic wand, this took sheer hard work

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Head of most improved school cites businesslike behaviour as the key to success.

Head Jackie Pearson knows how grim it is to be at the bottom of the league table. Now she's at the top - but she has still not become a convert to the annual schools' beauty contest.

In 2004, 18 per cent of the 543 pupils at Matthew Arnold School in Staines, west London, achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths. Last year 50 per cent made the benchmark, making it England's most improved school.

So what is the magic ingredient?

Sheer hard work, said Mrs Pearson. Becoming a business and enterprise college helped give the school a new focus. There have been benefits from links with McDonald's and Procter and Gamble.

Pupils are expected to behave as if they are in the workplace and take on the school's values of respect, co-operation and self-control. Inspectors noted: "The majority of students are pleasant young people whom it is a pleasure to meet."

Mrs Pearson said: "You've got to be wary about making judgments from league tables. They are a tool to use, not the be all and end all.

"The league tables are great if you are at the top, but we know what it is like to be a school struggling to improve. That is when leadership comes in - you have to support people through times which are not so good.

"It is always hard if you are in a school at the bottom end but somehow you have to keep motivation up and believe you are able to be successful."

Nationally the results are the highest ever, with 61.5 per cent getting five good GCSEs. The benchmark, introduced last year, is the number of pupils getting 5 A-star to Cs including maths and English. In 2007, 46.7 per cent of pupils gained this crucial mark.

In a fifth of schools, 30 per cent of their pupils failed to score at least five C grades in GCSE subjects including English and maths. The Government's target is for no school to be in this position by 2012.

The trend of girls outperforming boys has continued, with 66 per cent of girls achieving five A-star to Cs compared to 57 per cent of boys, with the gap closing on last year.

A score for science (two good GCSEs in the subject) was a new element this year and overall more than half of schools achieved this. Science colleges did best; even so a quarter failed to see more than half of their pupils reaching the target.

The inclusion of a science indicator is part of a wider government strategy to improve take-up of science after numbers taking A-level physics fell by 20 per cent between 1994 and 2004, with smaller decreases in chemistry and biology.

But Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association of Science Education, was wary of using the tables to drive improvements.

"If the table's purpose is to name and shame, I am worried. I think overall it has a detrimental and demoralising effect," he said.

The league tables also include the contextual value added (CVA) score for the second year. It is a measure of the pupils' progress once factors such as gender, age in year, number on free meals and whether pupils have been in care, have been taken into account.

Phoenix High in Shepherd's Bush, west London, came sixth in the country by this measure. Its score of 1,067 puts it in the top 5 per cent of schools in England, while its raw score of 43 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths is lower than average.

William Atkinson, head of Phoenix High, was the inspiration behind the Lenny Henry 'superhead' character who transforms a failing school in the 1999 BBC television series Hope and Glory.

He said: "The league tables are not a good way of judging schools. CVA tables give us a notion of progress. Parents are interested in the 5 A-star to C measure, but the measure enables us to have an intelligent conversation with parents about the difference that a school makes. We ought to be making sure that the school makes the biggest difference possible to young people in terms of where they started and where they finish."

THE HEADLINE FIGURES

- 62% of pupils achieved five A-star to C grades; this figure dropped to 46.7% if you include English and maths

- For girls, the overall figure was 66%, dropping to 51% if you include English and maths

- For boys, the overall figure is 57%, dropping to 42%

- Percentage of pupils getting five A-star to C grades including English and maths by type of school:

Community schools 42%

Voluntary aided 55.2%

Voluntary controlled 53.8%

Foundation schools 52.6%

City technology colleges 67.1%

Academies 30.1%

Independents 61.8%

- 50.3% of all pupils achieved two good GCSEs in science

- 91.7% achieved five A-star to Gs

- 1.1% left with no qualifications

CSI ECKINGTON IS ON THE CASE

As the Government exposes schools' science performance in the league tables, teachers at Eckington School in Derbyshire are working hard to enthuse their pupils about the subject.

Rather than copying from text books or drawing diagrams of atoms, pupils in Years 10 and 11 are all offered a course in forensic science. The course, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, was developed with the Forensic Science Service and Derbyshire police and has proved a hit with pupils hooked on CSIs Las Vegas, Miami and New York.

DVDs are used to set the scene of a murder investigation and a series of practical activities follow, including soil testing, clothes fibre analysis and fingerprint gathering. Pupils are expected to present their evidence as they would in court, developing their communication skills.

Chris Williams, a science advanced skills teacher, said it was a great way to keep pupils interested in science, at a time when many might be losing interest. The scheme has spread to a number of other schools in the county and will soon be available as a package nationwide.

He said: "All of the students who have been through it are so enthused. There is huge enthusiasm for science at Year 7 and then it tails off, so this kind of project helps hold the interest."

But what of the school's exam results?

In 2007 48 per cent of Eckington's pupils gained five A-star to Cs at GCSE, but the number falls to 39 per cent in science, a figure the school is working hard to improve.

Mr Williams said: "We think our school could do better, but the new specifications at key stage 3 and 5 should streamline what we are offering and help us focus our efforts better.

"The decision to use the figure as an indicator might be frightening and depressing for some schools where raising their results will be a challenge, but it will also make schools look at refining what they are doing in science."

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