By his own admission, 15-year-old Jamal* hasn't been terribly enamoured with school. He has been known for having a bad attitude and getting into trouble in class. Today, his approach to school and life in general is more positive. "I enjoy school so much more now," he says. "I'm predicted to get an A in English, a B or C in maths and science and hopefully a distinction in my Btec. I'm really looking forward to the rest of Year 10 and Year 11."
So what has got into him? His attitudes towards school, himself and his place in the community have been, if not turned around, then significantly changed through an initiative at Denbigh High School in Luton called Sports Academy. It is an approach to disaffection that has nothing to do with pupil referral units, detentions or exclusions - instead, it provides a learning route for troubled key stage 4 pupils through a sports-rich curriculum. "I really enjoy Sports Academy and I look forward to it every day," he says. "It helps me to behave well because I don't want to miss it. And I'm learning how to behave well in my other lessons, too. I'm learning how to collaborate and work with others and I understand how my behaviour can either help others or disrupt their learning."
The Sports Academy, which started in September 2008, allows pupils to study for Btec qualifications, while simultaneously developing literacy and numeracy skills - this can dramatically change the fortunes for pupils who, in previous years, would have been at risk of exclusion. The academy is comprised of between 10 and 15 pupils who struggle to apply themselves positively to school life.
In addition to Btec sport, PE, English, maths and science, the academy pupils also follow sports leadership courses, which require them to coach and teach younger pupils and to officiate at competitions. "In several cases, these responsibilities have supported the pupils to develop a much more responsible outlook on school and on their learning," says associate principal Daniel Connor. "All these pupils have achieved at least five passes at grades A*-C where, in previous years, they may well have been excluded from school or have significantly underachieved."
This is only one of the school's host of successful initiatives. Denbigh High School has a decade-long record of year-on-year achievement at GCSE, during which time the proportion of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs has more than quadrupled. Judged to be outstanding by Ofsted, 40 per cent of pupils achieve the equivalent of three or more GCSE A*-A grades. More than 80 per cent of pupils progress to higher and further education when they leave.
The success of the school has led to recognition as The TES Secondary School of the Year in last year's TES Schools Awards. "The TES Award was a major milestone on a very long journey of school improvement that we have been on, ever since I joined the school as headteacher in 1991," says headmistress Dame Yasmin Bevan DBE.
"It is not that a change in leadership or radical changes to the way we do things has reaped an enormous change in one year, but it is the year-in, year-out hard graft, the attention to detail, the collegiate commitment to wanting to do the absolute best for all the young people in the school that has been the hallmark of our success."
The staff and pupils were delighted at the news. "The staff held assemblies to celebrate the award, it is a regular feature on our display screens and the trophy sits splendidly at the centre of our main display cabinet in the school foyer," says Dame Yasmin. "Our core value statement at the school is `high achievement for all is our shared responsibility'. This statement is known, understood and owned in a very real way by all members of the school community and so it was natural for the pupils to feel that they share this award in the same way they share the responsibility for collective achievement."
According to Dame Yasmin, it was becoming a specialist sports college four years ago that gave the staff the impetus to sustain their success. "This in particular has been a tremendous support in developing pupil leadership and raising standards and expectation across the school," she says. "An emphasis on leadership at pupil level with high participation and an ethos of contribution is another key element in helping the school realise its vision."
By putting key stage 4 pupils in charge of younger pupils, the teaching staff aimed to instill a sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute positively to society. Through PE, pupils organise and deliver sports festivals for children from partner primary schools throughout the year. The so-called junior sports leaders acquire sports coaching qualifications, which they use to run extra-curricular sporting activities for younger pupils.
There are also junior language leaders, who work with teachers to plan and deliver Year 7 lessons in French, Spanish, Urdu and Bengali. "The language leaders also visit our partner primary schools to perform plays in French and Spanish as part of the primary schools' language programmes," says Mr Connor.
Junior learning leaders in KS4 work with younger pupils to develop literacy skills, support reading and provide peer pastoral support in form time.
Stephen* and Andrew*, two Year 10 pupils, have both been involved as sports leaders, and have successfully delivered activity programmes to younger children in the school's partner primaries. It gives them a real sense of helping the community. "This has been a great way of helping us think of ourselves as leaders," says Stephen. "It's really fulfilling to work with the young children. They love the games."
Another of Denbigh's initiatives involves a citizenship course, which is compulsory for KS4 pupils. As part of this course, they organise community projects, which have included activities such as social events for elderly members of the community, helping the school review its sex and relationships education curriculum and working with the local council to reduce graffiti in the town.
"The graffiti project has been so successful that the pupils have been asked by the council to manage the development of a bespoke graffiti wall in the town and to continue to work with the council to monitor graffiti and promote a responsible approach to it," says Mr Connor.
Husain*, a previously disaffected Year 10 pupil, is a member of the group that worked with the council on the graffiti project. "We got a lot out of this project," says Husain. "It really made us feel as though we had contributed something to the community. It has helped build our resilience. It made us realise that if we really want to achieve something and we put our minds to it, we can do it."
His friend and fellow pupil Tanvir* is similarly pleased with the results. "The project has really helped us develop our team-building skills because we had to work together and we had to work with other partners at the council," he says. The pair now have more confidence to tackle other things in life, they say.
According to Dame Yasmin, the teaching staff at Denbigh continue to strive for excellence in everything they do. The atmosphere at the school is tangibly one of achievement and a desire to do well at all levels, but in a collaborative, confident way.
"We hope we have created a school where pupils feel challenged, fulfilled, confident, proud, successful and responsible for each other," she says. "These are things which, ultimately, make them feel happy. That is certainly what we work for."
*All pupil names have been changed
What the judges said
"What was impressive was the use of sport and physical activity to raise achievement and the curriculum to develop leadership capacity."
About the Awards
The TES Schools Awards, or TESSAs, celebrate and award the professionalism and flair of teams making an outstanding contribution to primary and secondary schools in the maintained and independent sectors. Last year's event attracted hundreds of entries and the panel of judges was impressed by their range and quality. This Year's TESSAs will be held at the Grosvenor House Hotel on June 17, 2010, and are open for entries at www.tes.co.ukawards.