Not so mad Hatters now

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Once known as 'the prison on the hill', Hatters' Lane school is now on the up, reports Martin Whittaker

Name Highcrest community school, High Wycombe

School type 11-16 community school

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals 35 per cent

Improved results Below average but improving. The school has raised the proportion of students gaining five grade Cs or better at GCSE from 20 per cent in 2002 to 30 per cent this year

Hatters' Lane school in High Wycombe was once notorious. So poor was its reputation that local people nicknamed it "the prison on the hill" while its pupils were branded "mad hatters".

It was closed two years ago after it failed its second Office for Standards in Education inspection and reopened as Highcrest community school with a new governing body, headteacher and staff.

But while other schools have stalled or failed under the controversial Fresh Start policy, Highcrest has emerged as a success. Its latest inspection report published this week declares it good and effective.

Ofsted gave the school two "excellents", for involvement of pupils and leadership of the head, and "very good" for pupil behaviour, care, support and guidance, leadership of the senior management team, and teaching and learning at key stage 4.

"I'm very proud of what the whole team has done with this school," said head Shena Moynihan. "At first people said all you have changed is the name - you're still the prison on the hill.

"But now the school is really serving the local community. They haven't had access to a good school before and the word gets out very quickly."

Overcoming the poor reputation has been a battle, but the school has courted the local press to cover events, and the head takes students to and has reciprocal visits from feeder primary schools.

"People only had to walk past the gate and I was dragging them in and getting the pupils to show them around. The pupils are the best advert for the school."

Despite being in affluent Buckinghamshire, Highcrest serves estates in High Wycombe with extreme levels of deprivation and has all the characteristics of an inner-city school.

The county is selective and the 40 per cent most able pupils go to grammar schools. More than half of Highcrest's students are from an ethnic minority, and more than 35 per cent are eligible for free school meals.

About 38 per cent have special educational needs.

It is officially an 11-18 school, although it currently only takes pupils up to 16. A new sixth-form is in the pipeline and the school is aiming for specialist status. There are 570 students on roll and the school is oversubscribed.

Its GCSE results are below national average but are improving. In 2002, 20 per cent of students gained five or more A*-C grades. This year the figure was 30 per cent and every student left school with a GCSE.

This was Shena Moynihan's first headship, though she rejects the term "superhead". She believes Highcrest succeeded because unlike other Fresh Start schools, she began with a clean slate. Teachers and senior managers at Hatters' Lane were offered redundancy and those who wanted to stay on had to reapply for their jobs. The school's pound;315,000 deficit budget was written off.

But Miss Moynihan inherited neglected buildings, including condemned classrooms, graffiti-covered walls and outside toilets. And she found an intimidating atmosphere with gangs of pupils crowding the corridors.

"When I first arrived and the pupils didn't know who I was, I walked through a group of them and they closed up and I had to force my way through. There was a real gang-like mentality."

Today, prefects in Year 11 show visitors around the school with discernible pride. Classrooms have had a new coat of paint and corridors are covered in displays. On the wall outside the head's office are pound;6.5 million plans to modernise the buildings.

Prefects say students and teachers now respect each other. "They treat us more like adults," says one.

Shena Moynihan says a major improvement has been having high expectations of students and zero tolerance of poor behaviour.

The school is strict. Uniform rules are upheld, trainers are banned, and rudeness to staff or prefects is not tolerated. Students can even find themselves on litter-picking duty for walking up the down stairwell.

"They have clear boundaries with clear sanctions, and high expectations of behaviour, their appearance and politeness," says Ms Moynihan.

Students help with buddy mentoring or paired reading, and are rewarded with certificates, merits and badges. Y11 prefects are given a list of responsibilities and privileges and the role is seen as something to strive for.

The head also points to the quality of her teachers and senior management team. She will go through six rounds of applications to find the right person. The school has focused on improving teaching and learning, particularly on different learning styles. Teachers have undergone Ofsted training to help heads of department with lessons.

Highcrest has focused on citizenship. The way it dealt with student protests over the Iraq war - by getting students to look at both sides of the debate - is used as a model in teacher training at Oxford Brooks University.

The school has broadened the curriculum and now offers General National Vocational Qualifications and some National Vocational Qualifications in collaboration with FE colleges. It has also introduced a range of after-school activities.

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