Glory spread non-selectively
This week is no exception. As headteacher of one of the 32 schools named as "oustanding" by the Government's chief inspector in his annual report, Kevin McAleese has once again been proving his adeptness at handling photographers and reporters. An unashamed publicist, he is quick to point out that Harrogate Grammar is one of only eight schools from the North named as excellent and that, unlike half the list, it is non-selective.
It looks like a grammar school - solid 1930s architecture - it feels like a grammar school, it behaves like a grammar school, but despite its name it is in fact a comprehensive of 1,600 pupils with a sixth form of 420, twice the size of many of the selective grammars picked out by Chris Woodhead.
One in five pupils plays a musical instrument. Sixth-formers are encouraged to become involved with the lower school through paired reading, charity fund-raising and the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. The Office for Standards in Education has praised the mini-enterprise programme which the business studies department runs for GCSE and GNVQ students.
To portray Harrogate as a typical comprehensive would be misleading. The school is oversubscribed, with 350 applications for 246 places this year, and many children come from the affluent southern end of the city and its outlying commuter villages. As a recent report from OFSTED stated: "The proportion of pupils from high-class social groups ... is well above average." Inspectors noted that reading ability on entry to the school was average or above for the majority.
No more than eight children carry statements and only 34 are from ethnic minorities. All this lends weight to the wisdom that "excellence" as defined by the chief inspector is easier to achieve in a selective school or one with a professional class intake. Kevin McAleese goes some way to acknowledging this. He said: "Some schools struggle with levels of difficulty that we don't. If our staff were transferred to some of those schools they would not be successful without changing the way that they teach."
The school runs on strong discipline, with detention a regular sanction. All pupils are banded and streamed after Year 7 and all do full examinations in January and June.
Classes in the lower band are smaller - 20 compared to 30 in the upper bands - and all teachers teach across the ability range. Whole-class teaching of the sort favoured by the chief inspector is a regular feature. Staff are required to become involved in extra-curricular activities and newly qualified teachers have to submit to a one-year contract before being offered a permanent position.
Andrea Tidd, head of geography, says staff commitment is high. "This is a very good comprehensive. I worked in two grammar schools previously and pupil commitment, staff enthusiasm and parental expectations are all higher here. "
According to pupils, teachers' knowledge and enthusiasm is impressive. Mark Mitchell, 17, has a place at Cambridge to study maths. He said: "If you want to go further with a subject they willingly take time out to help you. They definitely teach you too much rather than too little."
Although intake is already skewed towards high achievers, Mr McAleese would consider more selection on ability, wishing always to do "what was best for the school". This no doubt creates friction within North Yorkshire, an authority with a majority of comprehensive schools which prides itself on its national standing. The National Council for Examination Results ranks it seventh in the national league tables, above Buckinghamshire which has a comparable social mix and operates selection.
North Yorkshire has fared well in the OFSTED annual report. It is one of only two LEAs (Humberside is the other) to have four primary schools on the "excellent list" and has another secondary, Tadcaster grammar (also a comprehensive) on the "good and improving" list.
Fred Evans, the county education officer, puts this down to close and systematic quality assurance by advisory teams. "We are never satisfied with any school. We would always encourage them to aim higher and go further. "
Tadcaster Grammar is the only secondary to serve the brewing town. Its catchment extends into the suburbs of both York and Leeds. With 59 per cent of its pupils achieving five A-C GCSEs last year - well above the national average of 42 per cent - Tadcaster is regarded as having good and improving standards of behaviour and academic achievement.
"We are an old-fashioned school using traditional methods," said David Impey, headteacher for the past 11 years. "It is what parents want." Pupils wear uniform, standards of behaviour are described by OFSTED as high, exam results have improved steadily and whole-class teaching is common.
Mr Impey is nevertheless wedded to comprehensive education. "We also provide opportunities at the bottom end. Last year, no young person, not even those with special needs, left this school without five graded GCSEs."