'This is not football

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Set in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, Heathfield Technology College has had a glowing Oftsed report and received two government awards. But Gordon Brown has labelled it a "failure".

John Parker has been head of the school at Cradley Heath in the West Midlands for 24 years. He says he believes he and his staff have a lot to be proud of.

They have successfully merged two tough urban schools to create a 1,864 pupil giant that feels half the size thanks to the ordered atmosphere in its well-maintained 1970s concrete flat-roofed blocks. They have started a 300-pupil sixth form from scratch, now sending 100 students to university a year.

And this in an area with virtually no tradition of post-16 education where traditional pride means families are often reluctant to see their children go into debt. Perhaps most importantly for these statistic obsessed times, the proportion of pupils gaining five A-star-C GCSEs has soared from just 4 per cent in 1984 to 74 per cent last year, well above the national average. And success has been achieved without offering vocational qualifications worth four league table GCSEs.

On the contrary, a policy of letting pupils take exams when they are ready means some achieve up to 20 good GCSEs each - a feat that does nothing for the school's league table position but everything for the individual.

In short, the school is a social mobility engine, an embodiment of everything New Labour wanted to achieve in education. Yet Mr Brown said it could be taken over or closed as one of 639 schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

Heathfield managed 26 per cent last year - a slight dip from 30 per cent in 2006, which Mr Parker attributes to recruitment problems.

"I understand politicians are trying to drive standards up, but they have to take these league table measures with a pinch of salt," he said. "This is not football; this is about kids doing their best to achieve and now we are undermining that." In fact, Heathfield excels on the Government's most sophisticated performance measure: contextual value added, which takes into account prior pupil attainment and factors such as social disadvantage.

Its 1,030 score is well above the average, testament to its excellent results and the community it serves.

The drive from Birmingham takes you to the brow of a hill where the vast industrial plain of Cradley Heath and its neighbouring Black Country towns can be seen laid out below. It is a dense sprawl of old factories, newer business parks and low-rise social housing, punctuated by tower blocks.

Heathfield sits at the edge, next to a rabbit hutch-like council estate in the Old Hill area. It is a neighbourhood the taxi driver, a local, described bluntly as "rough".

Diane Collins, head of the sixth form, says that when she has given pupils lifts home, they have asked to be dropped at the bottom of their street because they are ashamed of where they live.

"It can be difficult walking around a well-resourced school like this because it is not like that in their homes," she said. "But it is important they see something else."

Cradley Heath was the thriving ironworks centre that produced the Titanic's anchor. Foundries, steelworks and coal mines provided plentiful jobs until the Thatcher era of the 1980s. The Longbridge car plant survived until 2005.

That industrial era produced an attitude to schooling that Heathfield has fought hard to counter. "There are still parents who don't think education is that important," said Mr Parker. "In the past, fathers or grandfathers would find pupils jobs. But those days are going."

Those attitudes help to explain why fewer than 10 per cent of Heathfield pupils achieved five O-levels in the early 1980s. But under Mr Parker's leadership, Heathfield has thrived. Now he and his staff feel Mr Brown has shifted the goalposts suddenly and unfairly.

The school is confident it will meet the new demands, but Mr Parker believes focusing on the new functional literacy and numeracy tests might have been more sensible.

Teachers are being moved off subjects such as history to boost English and maths, which will also mean less time spent on statistics and English literature GCSEs.

"We want to give the best to whoever comes through our door," Mr Parker said. "Children can do well round here - they have proved it. But it is not easy, and that is not necessarily recognised by others. They have their own agendas."

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