'It was the talk of the bingo hall'

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Name Walker technology college, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

School type 11-18 community comprehensive

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

38 per cent

Improved results The school has raised the proportion of students getting five Cs or better at GCSE from 1 per cent in 1990 to 58 per cent in 2003

The astonishing turnaround of a Newcastle school has been an inspiration to the deprived community it serves. Martin Whittaker reports

This year's GCSE results at Walker technology college weren't only celebrated inside the school - Tony Broady, the head, was accosted in the street.

"People with shopping trolleys were stopping me wanting to talk about our exam results," he said. "One of our learning mentors told me it was the talk of their local bingo hall."

In 1990 the school made headlines in local newspapers - but for very different reasons: only 1 per cent of its students then got five Cs or better at GCSE.

This summer the figure was 58 per cent - the second best results in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

And Dr Broady has been eager to celebrate success. The college's latest newsletter shows him holding up a celebratory "58 per cent" poster - he even doled out chocolate stars decorated with the figure to all his staff.

This year the target is 70 per cent.

The astonishing improvement is also a major boost for its catchment area.

Walker, on the east side of Newcastle, is very disadvantaged - it ranks 30th of 8,414 English local authority wards in deprivation rankings.

Yet this year students managed to beat middle-class peers in the city.

"This has done more to raise the morale of the area than any of the multi-million pound strategies for regeneration," says Dr Broady. "It has given the area something that money can't buy."

Walker is an 11-18 comprehensive with 1,250 children. More than a third of its pupils are eligible for free meals.

The school won specialist technology status three years ago, and was 20th in the list of 100 most improved schools last year.

The results are even more impressive given that standards of students at entry are well below average. But the school also has its share of gifted students and rising numbers are going on to its sixth form and then university.

Dr Broady is keen to stress that the improvement has been the work of all staff, teaching and non-teaching, although governors say it could not have happened without his leadership.

When Walker hit the bottom of the city's results pile 13 years ago he had been in post for five years. "When I came the school had been without a head for a year and the confidence of our feeder primary schools had been lost."

So how was the school turned around? By a host of strategies, many of them learned from visiting other inner-city schools.

Dr Broady introduced five formal reviews for staff with senior managers a year focusing on teaching and learning.

He also followed the lead of several other schools and scrapped study leave, as pupils were not using it to study. The leave was mainly to free teachers to invigilate exams, says Dr Broady. "It was for teachers'

convenience rather than being best for the kids."

The school also brought in a 30-minute revision session before the start of each exam, as well as after-school and weekend sessions. It also set aside whole days for pupils to focus on one part of the curriculum, such as English language coursework or a unit of a GNVQ.

Entering all GCSE English students early, in November, brought a marked improvement. In 2002 only 76 per cent of students passed GCSE English language - this year 96 per cent did. Walker college is involved in an Excellence in Cities programme to raise urban standards and says the mentors the scheme funds had a positive impact on some students.

In May it introduced a "discipline for learning" behaviour strategy involving ladders of sanctions and rewards.

The school has also offered a broad range of extra-curricular activities, including Duke of Edinburgh awards, visits to its outdoor pursuits centre in the Lake District and, particularly, overseas exchanges.

Each year students visit the Ukraine, Australia, the United States, Norway, Germany and France. This term they visited China for the first time and the school hosted a return delegation.

"Students who do well in exams nearly always take part in a wide variety of other activities," says the head. "They complement rather than get in the way of academic progress."

Dr Broady believes a key factor in improvement has been the stability of his staff. "If you appoint damn good staff ... you should do everything to try and keep them," he says. "So we never advertise our promoted posts outside the school."

This has brought great stability - a quarter of its teachers have been there more than 20 years. This term the school has six newly qualified teachers, appointed from 30 who came on teaching practice last year.

David Wood, chair of governors and a local councillor, said the school also benefits from having long-serving governors and strong community support.

"I have been a governor for 14 years and there are people who have been one longer," he said. "The community here is strong, and the growth in attainment has been a real team effort by staff.

"But they all know the governors are supportive of them. They come into the school to help where they can. Governors' meetings can last three hours - not just because it's a talking shop but because people care."

Are you a governing body which has helped transform a school? Contact susan.young@tes.co.uk

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