Public and private working together
As you turn into Conisborough Crescent in Catford, south London, the road is lined with flags bearing images of rampant stags.
"Aspire. Believe. Succeed," passers-by are urged as they approach the imposing building of Conisborough College, perched on a modest, grassy hillside. Its minimalist style, with just a hint of Le Corbusier, gives it the look of a school with purpose; a grey beacon of learning tucked down a residential street.
And the pupils look purposeful, too. Dressed in blazers adorned with a wide variety of merit badges, they politely greet guests in the foyer, handing out visitors' passes.
On this first impression alone, it is hardly surprising that Conisborough is the most popular community school in Lewisham, a deprived inner-city borough. And the exam results - considering its very underprivileged intake - are really rather respectable, too: 55 per cent of pupils are expected to gain five good GCSEs including English and maths this month.
But it was not ever thus. Only a few years ago, when it was known as Catford Girls' School, it had a reputation problem among local families, despite reasonable Ofsted reports. The local authority tried to address the issue of falling rolls by turning it into a co-educational school called Catford High in 2006. But even as late as 2009, only 68 families put it as first choice for their child's secondary education. That number has now risen to 168.
It all sounds rather like your archetypal "academy story" - something of a political cliche. A down-at-heel school with image problems rises from the ashes in new buildings, with posh uniforms, a new head and a new mission. Parents flood forwards. Think Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, for the "fairy tale" turnaround.
But while it was one of the lucky few to secure shiny buildings under the (now cancelled) Building Schools for the Future programme, Conisborough has bucked the local academy trend.
Nationally, the number of academies has surged from 203 to 1,807 in just two years and Labour-run Lewisham now boasts three. One, Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College, is one of the most popular schools in the authority.
Conisborough has plotted an alternative route by remaining resolutely a community school. However, while it has rejected academisation or federation with higher performing schools, it is far from being a poster boy for the anti-academies movement. Indeed, its successful relaunch came with help from a unique partnership with a local independent school.
It all began in 2009, when Frankie Sulke, head of children and young people at Lewisham Council, approached Colfe's, a leading private school in Lee, south London. Sulke was keen to see if Colfe's, which is a member of the elite Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), could support school improvement in the area.
She asked the headteacher, Richard Russell, if he would be interested in running a federation of schools including Catford High and another comprehensive. Russell turned down the offer because he feared he would have no time left for his own school. But after a series of discussions, he agreed to a partnership that would allow Colfe's to nominate six people to the comprehensive's governing body. A rare Freedom to Innovate request was successfully lodged with the Department for Education to allow this to go ahead.
Russell has since taken up a place as a governor, along with two retired deputies from HMC schools and a lawyer, formerly a Colfe's scholar. They support Conisborough by offering advice in their wide-ranging areas of expertise. For example, the lawyer is an expert on construction contracts and advises on Conisborough's private finance initiative arrangements. Another governor has expertise in child protection issues and pastoral care.
Colfe's also agreed to offer two sixth-form scholarships to pupils from the rebranded school, which has closed its small post-16 offering. And Conisborough has adopted a version of the rampant stag insignia of Colfe's coat of arms.
The influence of the private school is also obvious in Conisborough's strict uniform, traditional house system and nomination of a head boy and head girl. The school says pupils gain a sense of family and belonging from the vertical houses.
More traditional partnership activities proliferate between the two schools: Conisborough's football team has played, and beaten, Marlborough College and Eton College, and a Year 10 pupil from the state school now plays rugby for Colfe's. The private school offers pre-exam booster sessions, joint in-service training days, careers activities, trips, and gifted and talented events. Indeed, the partnership has breathed life into Conisborough.
"They build capacity and bring considerable expertise in a wide range of areas. The governing body's ability to support and challenge the college is significantly enhanced by their involvement," says headteacher Bob Ellis. But he stresses that it is the state school's pupils and staff who have been at the heart of the turnaround in its fortunes.
"Catford High had become an unpopular school. It had a negative reputation, but on coming to the interview I didn't think the reputation was deserved," says Ellis, who took over in 2008. "I liked the students and staff. They were halfway through a rebuild; it was an exciting time. I went to primaries and people were saying they didn't want to go to Catford.
"I saw myself as very fortunate. The raw materials were here to really go places. The best advert for the school was the students. It was pretty apparent that there were lots of quick wins."
The "tried and tested formula" of the academy route was on the agenda from the moment Ellis arrived. But he wasn't keen on the idea. "With that, there are connotations you haven't succeeded," he says. "I wanted to do something different to raise aspirations."
Ellis is, of course, referring to the academies programme in its incarnation under Labour, rather than the tidal wave triggered after the formation of the coalition government. "When a school became an academy it was like something that had to be done to the school community, like saying `you need this medicine'. I had to make sure it was a positive choice," he says.
He insists he avoided the "slash and burn techniques" popular with some new academy heads, preferring to get the best out of his existing staff: "I have more respect for someone like (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger, who develops young players, than someone who ducks and dives in the transfer market."
And he did not want to boost results by changing the intake. "I believe in comprehensive education. I wanted to do it with the local authority, to create an outstanding school for the local people that they would be desperate to get their children into," he says.
Conisborough's exam results tell a positive story. In 2007, only 19 per cent of pupils gained five or more A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths. That figure is now at 50 per cent and is expected to rise by 5 per cent later this month. Fixed-term exclusions have dropped from 296 in 2006-7 to 59 in 2010-11. Once many of the improvements had been made, and the new building put up, students named the school Conisborough College, after the road it sits on.
Ellis puts some of the improvement down to the motivating power of Colfe's sixth-form scholarships: "They offer students the opportunity to go to university and aim for it from Year 7, talking about the scholarship to Colfe's and going to Oxbridge." But what about the pupils who try, but fail, to get one of the two scholarships on offer? Don't they feel left out and downcast?
"I wasn't sure how it would affect pupils who went through the process and didn't get it," Ellis says. "But we found that it's very positive - they have worked harder. It's given them a clearer focus about what they want to achieve."
And Colfe's cannot be accused of poaching the best pupils, as Conisborough does not have a sixth form.
Although it charges fees of pound;13,000 a year, Colfe's does not have the air of a stereotypical big public school, despite its top-flight status. Housed in 1960s-style buildings down a residential street in nearby Lee, it has the look of a very well-kept state school.
Head Richard Russell says the partnership was set up by Lewisham Council so that it could support Conisborough "at a very important stage in its evolution".
"Catford was isolated, with lots of federations springing up. They wanted a strong partner to make the best of the Building Schools for the Future funding," he says. "They remain a community comprehensive that is answerable to Lewisham, and we are quite happy with that."
Offering support without `taking over'
Despite impassioned pleas from schools commissioner Elizabeth Sidwell, only a handful of private schools have sponsored academies so far - largely because of the reputational risk. Prestigious and confident schools such as Wellington College and Dulwich College have become sponsors, but most schools would baulk at the idea of dabbling in the financial and political minefield of full sponsorship.
However, fee-charging schools have come under increasing pressure in recent years to justify their charitable status by contributing to the state sector. Many say that it has always been their mission to remain true to their charitable roots by supporting promising pupils who cannot pay fees.
For Colfe's, the partnership with Conisborough allows it to go beyond small gestures such as loaning out its sports facilities, but without the risks of sponsoring an academy. It is able to offer practical and moral support without "taking over" the state school.
But Russell adds that there is still "a cultural battle to be won" in respect of parents who are suspicious of private education. "One foreign mum who didn't speak English didn't want her son to come because she didn't believe there were no strings attached," he says. "She thought she would be paying for it for the rest of her life. The boy was very upset about it at the time.
"We can't assume that everybody will automatically want to come to Colfe's. It makes it all the more important to be involved with the school in different ways that make sure the sixth form here is a very attractive option."
And what does Colfe's get out of the partnership? Russell explains that the scholars who come from Conisborough contribute to social diversity, and this year they have had the satisfaction of seeing the first two pupils receive offers from Russell Group universities.
The partnership is also integral to the school's on-the-job graduate teacher training programme. "Our trainees have learned a lot about classroom management from observing lessons at Conisborough," he says. "Our teachers have learned a lot from each other because the two schools are very different and have different challenges and different environments.
"This has immense value because, mostly, independent teachers go to meetings attended by other independent teachers and the agenda tends to repeat itself year after year. Contact with Conisborough gives us a new perspective."
Photo credit: Wilde Fry