'It makes all those hours of work worthwhile'

17th October 1997 at 01:00
The day this year's GCSE results were published was the best day we spent at Nobel School, Stevenage. Most of our pupils had exceeded their highest expectations. As they shrieked with delight, celebrating their own and each other's achievements, Janet Beacom, head of Year 11, turned to us and said: "It makes all those hours of work worthwhile."

This year, 55 per cent of our pupils achieved five or more GCSE ABCs - only 16 per cent managed this in l990 and 1991. To achieve this above-average performance with a year group who entered the school with baseline scores below national averages was an unremitting five-year slog. At times we despaired, but a huge collective effort raised standards.

The leadership of the headteacher and the senior staff is central if you wish to improve exam performance. If they do not make raising standards a priority, they cannot expect colleagues to respond to the challenge.

But leadership does not stop with the senior team. This year all the core subjects of the curriculum achieved more than 50 per cent ABC grades. Heads of departments built on the best practice, shared information with colleagues, began to build consensus and created more effective teams through collaborative planning, agreed objectives and shared staff development.

They followed the school approach, set clear objectives and demanding targets but then gave colleagues autonomy and allowed them the flexibility to achieve these goals in the way which suited their styles and strengths.

As we had one of the lowest per capita financial allocations in the local education authority, our strategic planning had to target resources where they had the greatest impact. We began to prioritise, gradually slimming our main school objectives to one - raising standards. The acid test for all our work became: what effect will this have on standards?

Gradually the culture of the school changed. In the early 1990s the school was introspective. Some teachers had low expectations, often ignored their own inadequacies and instead cast blame upon the children.

In 1994 Nobel became the most oversubscribed school in North Hertfordshire. New, young teachers joined the best of the existing, experienced staff. Teachers worked exceptionally hard and the focus of the school became a mission to raise standards through improving teaching and learning. Debate began to flourish and a climate was created where high levels of accomplishment became usual, and the improvement of teaching and learning became a continuous collective enterprise.

Gradually the climate in the year group shifted towards one where pupils who wished to work were less afraid to be seen working and where academic success became more valued.

The support of parents was also vital. We made the school more welcoming and improved our reporting and communication. Senior staff interviewed all Year 9 and 11 pupils with their parents, and set targets for raising individual pupil's levels of achievement.

If we had to choose aspects of our work which most improved exam results it would be target setting and monitoring performance. We used performance indicators, not as absolute measures in themselves, but as part of a wider system of review and self evaluation. Lessons and pupils' work were regularly monitored by senior staff and heads of department.

Most importantly, in 1990 the school began baseline testing which allowed analysis of past and current data to predict potential performance, and set each of our pupils, all departments and the school, realistic challenging targets for exam performance.

Last year's OFSTED report described Nobel as a "good school", giving "very good value for money"; that it emphasised "quality in all aspects of its work". Success has begun to breed success and the feel-good factor is tangible. The Nobel staff made a difference and they can be justifiably proud of their achievement.

Martin Titchmarsh and Yvonne Bates Martin Titchmarsh is now headteacher of The Broxbourne School, Hertfordshire. Yvonne Bates is now headteacher of Lilian Baylis School, Lambeth. Until this year they were head and deputy of Nobel School, Stevenage

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