How the west wing was won

12th September 2003 at 01:00
When Moseley School's grade II listed building began to collapse, so did its reputation. Martin Whittaker reports on its fight back to community success

Name Moseley school, Birmingham

School type 11-19 mixed comprehensive

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals around 60 per cent

Proportion of students for whom English is a second language 85 per cent

Improved results From 19 per cent in 1999 to 34 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A to C grade GCSEs this year

With the mullioned windows of its fine, red- brick Victorian buildings looking out across a well-tended cricket field, it could pass for a top independent school.

But Moseley school is a mixed comprehensive serving a disadvantaged inner-city area in Birmingham.

"Visitors come and they say surely this can't be an ordinary comprehensive," says David Peck, the headteacher. "It does look and feel in many parts like a public school."

Formed in 1974 by a merger of a boys' grammar and a Fifties secondary modern next door, it has seen quite a transformation. A decade ago its grade II listed west wing was left crumbling, surrounded by scaffolding, while Birmingham Council debated its future.

School management, parents and former pupils fought successfully to save the building, which re-opened five years ago following a multi-million pound renovation.

Amid this upheaval, Moseley school has also seen its reputation steadily grow. It was declared a good and improving school by Ofsted in 1999 and became a specialist language college in September 2000.

Its GCSE results have improved and it is hoping for a hat-trick of school achievement awards. In 1999, 19 per cent gained five or more A-C grades.

The GCSE A*-C figure this year was actually 34 per cent, a point lower than Mr Peck had forecast but still the school's best ever. This is low compared to national averages, but the school comes high in value-added tables.

Nearly two-thirds of its pupils are eligible for free meals and 85 per cent have English as a second language. "Our students come to us with low attainment on average," says Mr Peck.

The school has also developed its role in the community. Its pound;2 million health and fitness centre is open to the public and its cricket pitch, tended by groundsmen from nearby Edgbaston, is home to Asian cricket club Attock CC.

The governors have also worked hard to build a successful school. Chair Shannon Moore says:"The governors have links to specific year groups. We get to know the year group, and go to parents' evenings and the school council. That helps when you are making decisions.

"With the language college we have tried to make sure that we're going to be able to go back for subsequent funding by meeting and exceeding our targets. The language college is important in a school where such a large proportion of youngsters are from the Muslim community.

"The school is also one of very few that can do exchanges to places like Germany. We're not a public school and yet our students have those sort of opportunities."

Mary Miles, who retired as head in 2001, saw the school through some turbulent times. She was deputy head in the summer of 1987 when the former grammar school building was found to be riddled with damp and dry rot and declared unsafe.

"There was panic," she says. "At the time the sixth-form was in the middle of an A-level exam. Engineers came in and said it had to be evacuated. They boarded up and shut down major parts of the Victorian building."

As the building's future hung in the balance it began to affect public perception. "There were lots of rumours that Moseley was closing down, that they were never going to get the money to do it up," says Miles.

The school found itself low in the pecking order of parental choice as it tried to compete with local grammars, or children were sent into neighbouring Solihull.

With around 90 per cent of the school's population coming from Asian families, the head and her management team looked at the needs of the community.

The school began specialising in community languages and offering vocational qualifications in subjects like business studies.

"Many students came from a community of shopkeepers, restaurant owners and people running textile businesses, so they had a really good grasp of business," says Mary Miles.

After a long and hard-fought campaign, which included an 18,000-signature petition, the school won pound;5.3m from the city council, lottery and European funding to save its building.

The west wing was restored and re-opened in the summer of 1998, reverting to its original Victorian title Spring Hill College. Today it houses sixth-form students and doubles as an adult education centre.

How did the school juggle campaign, fund-raising and renovation and still manage to stay on track? "I had an extraordinarily dedicated and committed leadership team," says Mary Miles. "With one of my deputies I focused on linking with the contractors; the rest of the leadership team focused on the school."

Staff made good use of the renovation project in lessons, and former grammar school old boys came in to give talks. "There was huge learning on both sides. They were the traditional old boys.

"Some of them were in their 70s, and it was their first real experience of being with Asian students who had English as a second language. But once they got into working with them, they were just fantastic."

Miles now trains heads at the National College for School Leadership. Her successor, Mr Peck, took over in the early days of the language college.

There are around 30 languages spoken, and students are taking exams in Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali and Arabic. Many of its Somali pupils have come from Holland and are fluent in Dutch.

The school has become a centre of good practice in community languages and runs seminars for teachers. It has just appointed an advanced skills teacher in community languages, believed to be the first in the UK.

Its students teach Urdu to trainee teachers at Birmingham University. "In previous schools my community languages were the poor relation," says Mr Peck.

"When students arrive, many of them can speak three or four languages already. Historically we've made the mistake of saying you leave your community language at home. Now we celebrate the fact that they are already talented linguists."

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