Politicians and education experts will gather in London next week to discuss strategies to boost the attainment of ethnic minority pupils. Reva Klein visits a Sheffield secondary school that shows dramatic progress is possible.
High Storrs is the biggest comprehensive in Shef-field, but it doesn't boast about its size. Unassuming is a word that springs to mind about the place, its staff and its headteacher. Quietly and confidently they are working away at a revolution in standards which could be the envy of any multi-ethnic comprehensive.
While its setting looks suburban, the school's intake is mixed and from all over the city. Of the 1,760 pupils at High Storrs (including 400 in the sixth form), 30 per cent receive free school meals. There are children who enter the school with a reading age five years behind their chronological age. Some speak English as a second language. Others, newly arrived refugees from Somalia, start with no English at all. And there is a fully integrated unit for 30 children with hearing impairments and physical disabilities, some in wheelchairs.
In spite of the diversity of its student population, High Storrs defies negative stereotypes. This is no beleaguered sink school. Pupils come from no fewer than 42 feeder primaries all over Sheffield - their parents send them because they believe it is worth crossing town for. As the second-highest-achieving school in Sheffield's GCSE league tables, with 68.6 per cent achieving five or more A to Cs, it is a popular school. Every year for the past few years, an average of five students have gone to Oxford or Cambridge universities.
Ethnic minority pupils - who make up 15 per cent of the school population - are an integral part of its success story. The 40 minority students who took GCSEs last summer received a total of 185 grade A to Cs, 14 of which were A* - a staggering six-fold increase from the previous year. A jump like that is the stuff that dreams are made of.
But Dr Cheryle Berry, headteacher for the past eight years, is no dreamer; she is a pragmatist with a clear vision of how best to get her pupils to achieve their full potential. To that end, she and her team have devised a multi-pronged approach which echoes many of the recommendations made in the recent OFSTED review of research into the achievement of ethnic minority pupils. Most unusually, she has done so without forfeiting a strong pastoral ethos for the sake of high attainment.
She says the key to success is having many strategies working together. The school's customised curriculum development gives many students "self-esteem and raised aspirations" through learning their own languages and having their cultures reflected in the school's mainstream work. She says the home-school partnership is just as crucial. "We go into the community in a strategic, focused way to talk about academic outcomes and how parents can support their children."
Homework clubs in each curricular area, careful ethnic monitoring, Urdu at GCSE level (not exclusively taken by children of Asian origin) plus strong whole-school policies on issues of gender and race stereotypes have all sharpened assessment, boosted achievement and ensured the positive self-image of students.
The fulcrum of this work is the Sheffield Multicultural Education Service (SUMES). Permanently based at the school and funded through the education authority's Section 11 allocation, the four full-time and one part-time SUMES workers concentrate on language support and community liaison. They also operate an open-door pastoral service, functioning as a responsive pair of ears or an advocate when necessary. Three of the SUMES staff are co-opted governors, active in the development of High Storrs's whole-school policies.
They also attend meetings for heads of department and heads of year, as well as weekly meetings with the headteacher and a member of the special needs team. There, they monitor and discuss the progress of individual students and intervene when appropriate, devising educational strategies to help them along. They also oversee the intensive 30-minute daily reading-scheme session for all ethnic minority children who need it and run a session for all new student teachers on children who have English as a second language and cultural differences. Parents are regarded as essential partners. There is no rhetoric at High Storrs about home-school contracts: parents have an ongoing, informal as well as formal, relationship with the school and teachers that obviates the need for pieces of paper with pledges on them.
Mohammed Akram, of the SUMES team, says they have access to parents all the time "and the children know that. At the mosque or at community events, I can speak to a father and say 'Mr So and So, your daughter - why is she coming in late so often?"' To involve parents further in the school community, High Storrs ensures Urdu and Somali translators are present at parents' evenings, which are advertised on community radio stations and in the mosques. The school also offers, with the support of Sheffield Training and Enterprise Council, evening classes for staff and parents, covering everything from calligraphy to keep fit. Saturday classes, which will include instruction for children and their parents on basic literacy, numeracy and information technology, are also on the cards.
SUMES staff and Cheryle Berry also make annual visits to community centres serving the African-Caribbean, Asian and Somali populations of Sheffield. "We have built this into the school development plans," says Dr Berry. "We go in and talk about the importance of homework as a way of improving academic outcomes." She also organises evening meetings for specific issues.
Liz Cumberbatch, the mother of a mixed-race pupil, recalls a session on gender and achievement. "Mrs Berry asked for opinions from parents, and the dynamics between teachers and black boys came up. This sort of sensitive subject could only have been aired because the parents felt safe enough. And it yielded results. There was no defensiveness from Mrs Berry. She said, 'If you'd like to speak at a staff meeting about this, we will listen and negotiate.' It meant a lot to parents that she was prepared to take things up. They came away saying they were pleasantly surprised." An upshot of that meeting is the forthcoming establishment of a black parents' group, with support from the school.
An informed eclecticism pervades the school. The Heritage Club, run by African-Caribbean SUMES teacher Mark Hutchinson, looks at issues of black history, culture and identity (and is attended at lunchtimes by Asian and white British as well as black children). But the school does not thumb its nose at traditionalism. All 12 and 13-year-olds in Year 8 are required to study Latin and classical civilisation. A measure of its success is the fact that this year 60 opted to take classical civilisation for GCSE.
Next month, shadow education secretary and local MP David Blunkett will open a new computer design centre at High Storrs. The former leader of Sheffield Council has a long-standing relationship with the school, visiting it on several occasions and taking on a 15-year-old girl for work experience last summer.
* Raising achievement: Combating racial inequality, Tuesday February 25: Contact Cathy Bird, Conference Office, Institute of Education. Tel: 0171-612 6017
WHAT OFSTED SAYS ABOUT HIGH STORRS
In its inspection report of November 1994, OFSTED said: "Almost all pupils are achieving standards that are appropriate for their abilities and meet national expectations. Many are achieving levels that are high for their abilities and beyond national expectations. The results achieved in public examinations at GCSE and A-levels are above local and national averages."
HOW HIGH STORRS MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Sobia Rafiq is a 15-year-old in Year 10. She has taken her Urdu GCSE two years early and is now doing A-level Urdu during her lunchtimes. "The reputation of the school for good grades and good teaching attracted my parents to it, " she says. "It's a good place to be, where we all respect each other for what we are. If you wear something different, nobody points it out."
Leyon Scott is 14 and is also in Year 10. "Last year I wasn't doing that good in my lessons. Mark (Hutchinson, one of the SUMES teachers) used to come in and see if I was doing all right. Sometimes he would come to my house and talk to my parents. It changed my attitude to school and to the teachers. Just having Mark here helps. I'll go in and see him for a chat or if there's anything bothering me."