King of the hill
A human galaxy fills the school corridor: mothers in bright robes or headscarves, fathers uncomfortable in suits and ties. Around their knees and hips, heads swivelling to eye the pupil photographs lining the walls - "Look, Mum, it's Hugh!" - are a host of children in their best clothes.
It's open evening for prospective pupils, and they're queuing to get in.
The throng has already extended across the pastel green lobby with its glass-plated reception desk and African wood sculptures, and now it's spilling down the shale-fringed entrance ramp. There's an air of anxious expectancy, calmed by the haunting sound of a clarinet solo drifting from the hall.
Bobbing around at the edge of the melee is a slightly portly, bearded man with an exuberant air. "Good evening, everybody! I'm the headteacher, Alan Steer. Lovely to see you all. Is there anything anyone would like to ask me?"
There is, as it happens. In most cases it is: "What are the chances of getting a place if you don't live in the catchment area?" Alan Steer smiles cheerfully, tries to let them down gently. He talks about the best way to succeed at appeal. But he knows he won't be seeing many of them again. Last year, there were more than two first-choice applicants for each of the school's 180 Year 7 places.
These parents have good reason to try, against the odds, to get their children into Seven Kings. The 1,300-pupil secondary school, which nestles amid a splurge of outer-London pebbledash in Ilford, Essex, is exceptionally good. Its pupils' academic ability is close to the national average, yet its results are way above the norm. Last year, 53 per cent of pupils nationally gained five or more good GCSEs; at Seven Kings the figure was 78 per cent. The school sent nine out of 10 sixth-formers into higher education this year; a third of them to the University of London and three to Oxbridge.
There have been plaudits aplenty. Already a beacon school and a specialist science and technology college, Seven Kings was chosen last year as one of the first 100 leading edge schools, and is now helping to guide government policy on improvement. In June this year, its astonished head was knighted.
He feels nothing but relief that the parents queuing here tonight will apply for places not to the school, but to the London borough of Redbridge. This is not a school that can be accused of achieving good results through covert selection. There's little the authority will be able to do, though, if these parents try to buck the system. Others have already tried, and in increasing numbers.
Sir Alan believes some families must be giving false addresses to win places at Seven Kings. "We used to take children from six feeder primary schools; this year there are 36," he says. "There is mass cheating going on. Thank God I'm not responsible for it." In one case, the school became suspicious when several children from the same family arrived in successive years - each with a different home address.
Despite this, the intake spans the ability range. A higher than average proportion of pupils are entitled to free school meals, and two-thirds are from ethnic minorities. Most are of Pakistani and Indian origin, but the school also has pupils from other groups.
Yet 30 years after Seven Kings ceased to be a grammar school, it still feels like one. Even as pupils move between lessons, corridors are calm and orderly. Attempts to personalise the neat blue uniform are quickly squashed, and even unusual hairstyles are frowned upon. There's a huge green expanse of playing field, and both the inside and outside of its pre-war main building are smart and free of litter.
At the centre of it all, directing with an avuncular but decisive air - he winces at the suggestion of the word "authoritarian", then half admits to it - is Sir Alan.
So what is it about Seven Kings that makes it so good? What does it do that other schools don't? "People ask why we've been successful, and it's as if they want me to open my desk drawer and pull out a bottle saying 'Drink me'," he says.
"It isn't like that. You advance on all fronts. There are little things like putting in carpets, painting the classrooms, promoting the teachers you want to retain and having the courage to tell others it's time to move on. There are hundreds of different decisions on different levels. The job of a head is to flaming well get them right."
When he arrived at Seven Kings as headteacher in 1985, it was, he says, a "kind and friendly school". But he adds: "There was no culture of high academic attainment. Neither the Government nor the local authority was talking about achievement levels; there was no interest in them. This place reeked of kids being patronised. There was no rigour. If you went into the English cupboard, you would find no pre-20th-century texts, just short stories. I believe all kids are entitled to a high quality education, not as customers, but as citizens. It's their right.
"I had some very difficult staff meetings - 'It isn't your role to question how we teach in the classroom' - that sort of thing. In 2004, it sounds absurd."
By the early 1990s the school was changing. A teaching and learning policy had been drawn up which set out the minimum standard of service each pupil should expect to receive: objectives set out at the start of each lesson and reviewed at the end; homework set regularly according to a timetable; clear rules on how work would be marked. Staff began to hold regular, structured interviews with all pupils and to set targets both for them and for the school. Instead of reflecting on its recent achievements, Seven Kings began to look ahead, setting targets for where it wanted to be in two or three years' time.
Seating plans were introduced for all lessons, so pupils no longer sat with their friends. This simple measure, according to many experts, is the biggest single move any school can make to improve standards.
A head, Sir Alan says, is like the flag at the top of the pole. He or she has to set the tone, keep things moving forward. In his start of term address to staff, he is cheery, yet focused. "Our teaching and learning policy is not advisory," he tells them. "It is a mandatory policy to be followed by all colleagues. Not just occasionally, but constantly."
He has lots of key words and phrases: "Never stop asking, 'Why?'"; "This school doesn't exist for adults. Its only purpose is what it does for children." Motivation. Consistency. Improvement. Herrings, he says, have to keep swimming or they can't breathe.
He is a constant presence in school. His typical day starts at 7am and goes on until five or six in the evening, and although it involves a range of meetings both in school and outside, he wouldn't consider it a good day if it didn't involve talking to pupils.
He is often to be found at the school gates in the morning as the children arrive: "Good morning Sheena, how's your sister getting on at university?"
"Arif, jacket on please." Or he might be seen walking the corridors and the lunch queues: "Hello Sonia, how are you today?" "Tuck your shirt in, Jayesh."
Recently he has been spotted staring up at the huge tarpaulin which covers the gym block, where two new science rooms are being built. From behind it there's the sound of banging and a radio playing. "Are you up there, Terry?" "Yes, I'm here Alan." A member of staff says: "It's one of Alan's hobbies, building things." It's not a hobby in which many heads could have indulged a decade ago; there wouldn't have been the money.
Sir Alan is broadly complimentary about the current government. "In my career since 1971, this is the first government that's been really committed to education as a public service," he says. "Funding really has risen steeply; teachers are better paid and equipped. Yet I was at a conference the other day with a minister, and another head from London started complaining there wasn't enough money. I do think some people in education still have that feeling of being got at. We are still a bit whingey as a profession."
His only major gripe is on admissions, on the fate of this hopeful group of parents at tonight's open evening. The Blairite notion of increased parental choice can do little for them, he says. "I wouldn't give schools any power over admissions whatsoever. If you do, you end up with schools choosing kids, not parents choosing schools.
"This school could take 60 more kids each year and there still wouldn't be parental choice because there would be another 60 out there who wanted places and couldn't get them. That isn't choice. What we should be talking about is excellence everywhere."
A YEAR IN THE LIFE
Over the course of this academic year, The TES will be following the fortunes of Seven Kings high school. What is it that this school does that makes it so successful? Does it have a secret ingredient that helps to boost its results? Or does it just do what every good school does, but consistently and well? Does success come through charismatic leadership, or through the efforts of a dedicated and experienced staff?
By following some of the school's leading personalities through their typical working day, we hope to bring a new insight into the inner life of the modern comprehensive.
Fran Abrams's anatomy of Seven Kings will be published by Atlantic Books in 2006.