Keeping it simple

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Northicote, in the deprived suburb of Bushbury, Wol-verhampton, has taken less than four years to shake off the ignominy of being England's first failing secondary school and become a national template for improvement.

Pupil and staff morale has risen, achievement is showing an upward trend, there is strong support from the community and the school is oversubscribed.

Northicote's rehabilitation has been sealed by its official recognition from Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, as an "improving" school.

It features, too, in the Government's White Paper, Excellence in Schools, as an example of the way governors can help troubled schools.

During a visit in 1993 to Northicote, OFSTED inspectors found low achievement and unsatisfactory teaching and learning in more than a third of lessons. There was a high level of truancy, vandalism and serious concerns about the safety of some buildings, some dating from the Fifties.

Geoff Hampton, 45, who had been head teacher for just two months before the inspection, set about huge change. His initial goal was cultivating pride, among pupils in themselves, and in their school.

He said: "It meant ensuring that if a window was broken during the day the damage was not still there at night. That sent out a clear statement that the school was no longer going to stand for that sort of behaviour."

Two old school wings were demolished. A traditional uniform and a motto, "Excellence for Everyone", were adopted. Daily homework and strict classroom and general discipline codes were introduced. Setting of pupils by ability from the end of their first term in Year 7 was introduced, along with tighter monitoring of progress with a system of rewards and incentives.

Mr Hampton predicts that next summer around 30 per cent of GCSE entrants will get five or more top grades, compared with 13 per cent in 1994.

The new ethos, in a school where a third of children are entitled to free school meals and 70 per cent are on the special educational needs register, has affected discipline. Unauthorised absence has dropped in four years from more than 2 per cent of half days missed to around 0.2 per cent, and permanent exclusions from 20 to six.

New teachers have gradually been recruited, replacing about 10 departures, and staff complement is up to the original 46.

School finances have been overhauled, with more money going into the classroom.

An additional Pounds 340,000 from Wolverhampton education authority has allowed refurbishment of faculties, such as design and technology.

Northicote now has much greater involvement and respect from the community. Mr Hampton said: "I have taken the community-based approach. It has been crucial to get the support of the people who live around us. My game plan is that there are benefits for everybody."

Parents help in school with literacy and numeracy schemes, assisting children with learning difficulties. Some parents benefit too, attending adult classes at its sixth-form advanced learning centre.

At the root of Northicote's success is effective leadership, emphasis on achievement and high expectations, a committed staff, a strong governing body and community support.

Mr Hampton advised: "Keep the goals simple and attainable, and remember that for maximum impact you may have to delegate."

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