A small secondary modern, with sizeable numbers of statemented pupils, boys outnumbering girls, a grammar school up the road and a grant-maintained school round the corner. Is it The Ridings? It could be. But in fact it's Banovallum School in Horncastle, Lincolnshire - the most improved school in England. All of its 410 pupils have failed Lincolnshire's 11-plus. Yet this year, 39 per cent of Year 11 pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades C and above. That puts the secondary modern only a shade below the national average for all schools. It also marks a huge jump up from the 11 per cent of Banovallum pupils who gained five A-Cs in 1995. (No A*s until this year.)
Banovallum was built in the 1960s, in the usual squat, plate-glass, flat-roofed style. The triumphant Year 11s who have just left were the last intake to be taught in the Horsa huts in the playground. They were in them for a term. In January 1992, the new head, Tony Darby, arrived. Builders followed three weeks later. Lincolnshire spent #163;1.2 million on Banovallum - some of it long-planned building, confirmed on Mr Darby's appointment. The huts went. There were new science labs, a music suite and a revamped library and resources area.
Since then the school has spent more on the library, including a room of CD-Roms. It also has banks of Apple Macs and PCs in specialist IT rooms, and in every classroom.
The school is well-resourced. But resources do not teach children, argued Mr Darby. Good staff
teach children. Good resources give children the message that they are worth teaching.
Banovallum pupils do not rate high on deprivation scales. Horncastle is a market town; pupils' families work in farming, local industry or commute to Lincoln. Fifteen per cent of pupils have free school meals. But pupils do suffer from low expectations and low self-esteem: "Our children believe they have failed at the age of 11. We have to work against that all the time.
"Parents come in with their children and they say, 'He hasn't got into the grammar school; I just want him to be happy.' I don't want them coming to Banovallum just to be happy. I want them coming to be as successful as they possibly can be."
Staff know how successful each child can be from the many test results. What with national tests, verbal reasoning scores from the 11-plus and a school reading age test, Banovallum children are well-documented. Every child's details are entered on a spreadsheet. Pupils are set, mostly in Year 8, but they are also banded - not to their own knowledge, but so teachers know what to expect of them.
From some they can expect quite a lot. Many of this year's Year 7 pupils scored level 4 in all national tests; there is a sprinkling of level 5s, as well as the 3s and 2s. Thirty-one of the 407 pupils are statemented. But the school does not pick out pupils at the CD borderline. The 1996 GCSEs showed a shift upwards at every grade: the Cs to Bs, the Ds to Cs, and the Fs to Es - another crucial borderline, maybe not for league tables,but for entry levels in further education.
Every child is expected to perform to the best of their ability, as is every teacher - and they do. OFSTED, in a glowing report last month, said that teaching was satisfactory or better in 95 per cent of lessons. Most staff, says Mr Darby, were at the school before he arrived: "They are exceptionally hard-working and talented."
Staff supervise a daily lunchtime homework club. Each acts as a mentor for three or four Year 11 pupils, meeting once a fortnight, discussing progress, chivvying them to keep up to date with coursework. A system of merits for good work operates in the lower school; in the upper school there are half-termly reports, with any under-performing pupil picked out as causing concern.
The school runs a reading recovery and reading partner scheme and puts extra time into English lessons, seeing this as the key to improved overall performance.
As pupil numbers rise, all the extra money coming in has gone into additional staff to keep class sizes at their present average of 23.
The school is almost eerily quiet. But there's no hint of the boot camp: pupils stay seated and carry on working when visitors enter the classroom. "As they should," says Mr Darby. "Their work's the most important thing."
Uniform is a sweatshirt. Getting rid of the old blazers not only drew pupil and parent support, but also immediately decimated complaints about pupil behaviour.
There has been one permanent exclusion in the past four years and eight temporary ones, mostly for smoking. That disciplinary record stems from the school's exceptional relationship with parents, who, for example, are invited to visit the school and discuss their individual children the summer before they start at Banovallum. The OFSTED team could hardly believe their eyes at the pre-inspection meeting when more than 100 parents turned up.
Banovallum would like a sixth form, running vocational courses, perhaps with links to the grammar school for pupils with A-level potential. At present pupils have to travel 40 miles to Boston or north Lincolnshire colleges. .
"Our pupils are discriminated against when they leave," says Mr Darby. "We work on the basis that Banovallum youngsters should have the opportunities they would get in any other school. Of course, some years are better than others. You won't be coming back here next year, but next year will still be as good as it possibly can be."