On task as study leave is cancelled

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker reports on the astonishing improvement in GCSE results at an inner-city school.

As they see Year 11s from neighbouring schools swan off on study leave, pupils at Selly Park school could be forgiven for feeling hard done by.

The inner-city Birmingham comprehensive stopped the practice seven years ago, believing its girls needed more support in the run-up to GCSEs.

While the school had to work hard to sell this to pupils, the move has paid off. Replacing study leave with in-school revision has brought a leap in results between key stage 3 and 4.

KS3 results are still quite low - last year 63 per cent achieved the target level 5 or above in English, 56 per cent in maths and 41 per cent in science. But at GCSE, 82 per cent of pupils achieved five or more grades A* to C.

About 800 girls attend the single-sex technology college. Eighty-nine per cent are from ethnic minorities and 62 per cent do not speak English at home. The school takes pupils from Birmingham's poorest inner-city wards, and 54 per cent are eligible for free meals. In the Eighties the school was in decline and threatened with closure.

On the wall of head Michelle Magrs' office is a bar chart representing its gradual recovery under predecessor Wendy Davies who was made a Dame in 2001 and left Selly Park in 2002.

The chart is an almost perfect diagonal - from just 6 per cent of pupils gaining five Cs or better in 1989, to 27 per cent in 1997, up to last year's 82 per cent. In 2003 the school's KS3 to GCSE value-added score was the second highest in England.

Its traditional red-brick buildings are run-down: one block still has exterior walls pitted with holes from a Second World War air raid. But inside the school is well-equipped.

Selly Park was awarded Beacon status for teaching and learning, for languages, technology, leadership and for its initial teacher training. It is one of the few state schools to teach Russian.

In one information room, a group of Year 11s are doing revision but have been excused uniform - a concession for the loss of study leave. "All our Year 11s are in today, but many of them haven't got an exam," says assistant head Mike Miskella.

"That means they're going to be with teachers all day to do revising for their next exams. It makes sure they are on task, and they are doing the work and they are supervised."

The girls weren't getting the support they needed at home. Many don't have access to a computer or the internet. And many would go to the city library during study leave, but use it as an excuse to meet friends. Even those who were revising would concentrate too much on subjects they were good at.

"There was a lot of call on their time at home," says Mr Miskella. "We realised there were a lot of pupils who wouldn't work. They didn't have that sort of discipline that they could plan their own revision and really work at it.

"The problem is that if you have children who are highly motivated, they might do very well out of study leave. But some of our girls would take it as a holiday. Some have no idea that they need to be doing between five and seven hours of work a day."

The school began offering an Easter revision programme and Saturday morning revision clubs run by the head and senior staff with support from other staff.

It also began offering supervised revision sessions in the run-up to and between GCSE exams, with staff from individual subjects released to help with last-minute cramming.

"Super learning days" were introduced every half term for Years 10 and 11.

The school closes down the timetable for each year group, and all pupils are given access to a PC to allow them to catch up and focus on subjects that need most work.

Children's coursework is tracked constantly so that those in danger of failing are identified in Year 10 rather than a month before their exams.

Senior staff run early morning tutorials for borderline pupils and all departments have invested heavily in resources for revision.

Ms Magrs believes senior staff's relationship with pupils has helped.

"I think because we spend so much time with these kids, we know them as people. We see them on Saturdays and super-learning days, and our senior staff take exam groups. You could have a senior management team that didn't get involved in any of that, and didn't know the pupils as individuals."

The Specialist Schools Trust and the Department for Education and Skills have called on schools to adopt a personalised approach to helping pupils to prepare for GCSEs.

Their new publication Beyond Study Leave has advice to help schools develop their own strategies and includes case studies of schools such as Selly Park. Other examples include school-approved networks of mentors - often teachers, classroom assistants, parents and professionals in the community - to give individual support and encouragement with revision.

Beyond Study Leave is online at www.specialistschoolstrust.org.uk

Name - Selly Park technology college for girls School type: 11-16 comprehensive.

Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 54 per cent

Improved results: From 27 per cent of pupils gaining five or more grades A* to C GCSEs in 1997, to 82 per cent last year.

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