Roger Perks loves wearing his school tie, blazer and badge. That's him at the front - he's the headteacher

4th May 2001 at 01:00
There's a particular feeling that comes from meeting someone and finding that what you see is not quite what you thought you were going to get. Many people must have it when they are shown into the office of Roger Perks OBE. Instead of a stern secondary head in a suit, they see a mischievous man of 60 or so wearing the Baverstock school uniform - tie, blazer, badge, the lot.

Baverstock's founding head identifies strongly with the school, its children and their Birmingham neighbourhood, the Druids Hill estate. It seems the most natural thing in the world to sport the emblems he wants his pupils to wear with pride. "At first I felt conscious of it in heads' meetings and when we had visitors in school," he says. "But now it's second nature, part of what I do and what I am. It's a good advert for the school. And, like the kids, I have to behave myself when I'm wearing it."

And what do the parents think? Lynne Mills had two children in the school and now works there as a classroom assistant. She says most parents are quick to see the point. "The uniform can be a source of amusement at first. But as parents get to know him they realise that it shows his dedication to the school, almost to the exclusion of everything else. In fact it seems strange to see him wearing something else on non-uniform days."

Gary Spencer, who has two boys at Baverstock, is certain everyone approves. "He's like a stick of rock. Cut him in half and you'll find Baverstock written all the way through. The kids like it too. He's a real role model." The Spencers visited five schools before they chose Baverstock for their boys. "It went from bottom to top of the list. I was amazed at how the children own the vision of the school. As a businessman, I'm always wanting our people to own the vision of the business, and I'd never seen it like this in a school. It was incredible."

Sometimes it's almost as if Roger Perks sees himself as one of the pupils. He's jokily easy with them around the school, knowing everyone's name, and ready with enquiries about family and praise for classroom achievement. "The kids know we actually like them, and they trust us," he says.

Visitors comment on the way children drop into his room to see him. Although there are 1,400 of them, he invariably knows each one well. He is used to interruptions such as the Year 7 girl who bursts in with something to say: "You're not in a meeting are you? But I've got some good news. My dad's been promoted at work!" "Oh that's great, Sarah," replies her headteacher. "You'll be able to go on holiday, won't you?" "See you later," she calls as she leaves the room.

"Her dad was made redundant," he explains. "Then he got a low-paid job, and now he's obviously working his way up again."

A little later three sheepish Year 9 boys arrive, in trouble for some horseplay he spotted the previous evening as he supervised the pedestrian crossing outside the school. "I do the crossing every evening," he says. "You get to meet all the kids, including those from the primary schools, and you get all the tip-offs. You meet the community, too. It's a little outpost."

As the boys stand there, shuffling slightly and examining their shoes, he moves into "very disappointed" mode. "Three of my very best lads! The parents were there, the primary school children, people passing in cars and you were there in your uniform - as I wasI" Roger Perks trained in Birmingham at the end of the Fifties and has spent his whole career in the city, progressing to the headship of Naseby secondary modern in 1977. In 1983 he came to Baverstock, a comprehensive created from the closure of three secondary moderns and using the inadequate building of one.

"We inherited eight more or less derelict huts," he says. "There were ropes and chairs round the edges of the classrooms because you could push the walls out if you pressed on them. All the roofs leaked too."

Druids Hill is one of the outer-ring, tower-block council estates that spell trouble in many cities. "In 1983 it had the largest number of referrals to social services of any area of any city in Europe," says Roger Perks. "The whole estate was built with cynical disregard for people."

His ambition for Baverstock was to build a good school in an area that badly needed one. But it went further than that. "I wanted to prove conclusively that just because you live in a deprived area doesn't mean you can't make it to the top," he says. "My personal agenda was to remove the underclass here."

He and his senior management team, hand-picked from good teachers he knew, ploughed a hard furrow in the early years. Deputy head Mary Small, with Roger Perks from the start, says: "We worked out together what sort of school we wanted. I did all the pastoral stuff." He's a demanding boss, she says. They, in turn, expect much from him. "We're very individualistic, and we need a lot of managing. But you don't mind working hard because he's with you. He leads and sets an example."

The task at the start was to change pupils' attitudes to learning. "We had skinhead lads, pitching against authority," he says. "Even when they won at football they wouldn't stand up in assembly."

The short-term answer was to seize every opportunity to give pupils success and praise, and to create good role models from among them. "One of the big breakthroughs was through drama. We found how talented they were. We put on lots of productions - Grease, Oliver! - and it gave them much more confidence. Before they knew it they were becoming heroes and heroines, and we saw a huge turnaround in attitude."

In the longer term, he wanted the school to have a sixth form. He finally achieved this in 1992 during its spell of grant-maintained status. The effect over the years has been to increase the number of pupils staying in education after 16 from 30 per cent, when they had to move elsewhere, to 70 per cent now they can stay at Baverstock. The number of sixth-formers going on to higher education has steadily increased too - 70 per cent in 1999 and 86 per cent in 2000.

The school's measured performance has continued to improve. Ofsted findings confirm that it takes in children at well below average attainment and brings them up, by the end of key stage 3, to a level well above that of other schools of similar intake, and about the average for all schools. The percentage of A to Cs at GCSE has climbed steadily from 13 to 43 over 10 years, and attendance is better than the national average.

As the figures have climbed, so has the number of parents wanting their children in the school. In that first 1983 intake of 150, only 26 had Baverstock as their first choice. This year there were 520 first-choice applications for 200 places. Throughout, the school has stuck to its mission of serving the local community.

It is open every evening and weekend, and has become one of the biggest leisure and community centres in the city. At the less official level, there's a network of links with the local youth centre, the library, the tenants' associations and senior citizens groups. But no one is denying that life can still be difficult.

"The painful thing is when we lose someone," says Roger Perks. "When the street reclaims one of the sixth-formers who was going the right way, for example. There's real heartache. But there's joy, too - in September we've got three coming back who've had babies. It's good that they have the confidence to return."

It's clear that something special has happened in this part of Birmingham over the past 17 years. Although it's been a massive team effort, the energy source has been in the heart of one man. Irene O'Rourke once worked at the school and now serves the area as secretary of the local community hall. She has seen it all happen. "I started here as a cleaner, getting the school ready to open," she says. "What I loved about Mr Perks was that he made me feel I was somebody, an important part of the school. It's rare you find that."

Now she brings groups of older people from her community hall into the school. "Senior citizens, the disabled club, the friendship group, we're all invited up here. They didn't have anything until Mr Perks started all this. So it's not just the kids who now have more to do."

The next step for the school is to become a specialist sports college, with any luck in September. This will build on a spectacular sporting record - another whole story. Again, the drive is to involve the community, reinforcing the school's presence as a unifying force for good. "There's an exciting future ahead of us," says Roger Perks, unconsciously touching the badge on his blazer.

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