WHEN 16-year-old Shabana Akhtar joined Whalley Range high school in 1993, truancy, vandalism and mischief were commonplace.
"I used to muck about in class because everyone else did," said Shabana, now a prefect studying hard for GCSEs.
"Then the whole ethos of the school changed and I realised how important it was to do your best and try for good grades."
The inner-city girls' school had been one of Manchester's top grammar schools in the 1960s, when it was attended by Estelle Morris, the current standards minister.
But by 1994 it had the worst truancy record in the country. Fewer than three in four girls attended. Results plummeted until only 16 per cent achieved five GCSEs.
It was into this troubled climate that Jean Else was appointed headteacher to turn the school around.
Four years on, GCSE results have risen to 32 per cent, attendance has almost reached 95 per cent and numbers have risen from 766 in 1994 to 1,200.
It has been ranked in the top 5 per cent of English schools in terms of boosting pupils' performance, and is one of the most improved schools by raw GCSE performance.
Miss Else said: "The first thing was to tackle truancy - when I arrived the school was half-empty. Vast numbers left at lunchtime and didn't come back. We rearranged the timetable and kept them in school but started lots of activities so they would prefer to stay."
Carpets, colourful displays and welcoming music in the entrance hall gave pupils more pride, as did the smart, purple uniforms they had selected themselves.
Pupils had been embarrassed to attend the "Mothercare" school, so-called because of its many pregnant pupils, but are now happy to be Whalley Rangers.
Sixth-former Riyam Hassan, 16, studying GNVQ business studies, said: "The change in environment played a big part in my decision to stay on. It used to be cold and drab and walking the corridors made you feel part of a failure. "
Lynsey Canning, 15, said: "Attitudes to work have changed and relationships with teachers have improved because we are working towards the same thing. "
An open house scheme gives girls somewhere to do homework or get extra tuition at lunchtimes and after school.
"We wanted them to think of it as a second home. For many it is a much quieter and safer place than their first one," said Miss Else.
A mentoring programme and visits from successful career women have helped raise aspirations. Vouchers for good behaviour, attendance and merit marks can be exchanged for prizes. Girls can apply for positions of responsibility such as librarians and peer counsellors.
Miss Else said: "I think the old grammar school rested on its laurels. When it changed to a comprehensive it never got to grips with the new type of student.
"A lot of the problem has been about perceptions and I have had to work hard to sell the school to parents. But this year all our brighter girls stayed on. Whalley Range has turned the corner."