When the TV crews left us ..

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
If you are a failing school you get lots of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Martin Whittaker reports

Three years ago, headteacher Keith Hargrave had a bad case of "initiativitis". Canterbury high school, a secondary modern serving a disadvantaged part of Kent, had been bombarded with school improvement measures and its exam results had stalled after years of progress.

He says: "It was bolt-on initiative after bolt-on initiative, then there came a point where I got totally fed up. We needed to take control of the agenda and remould it."

The school tore up traditional models of working, restructured the school day and the curriculum, and got rid of tutor groups. It introduced mentoring and gave support staff responsibility for discipline.

But what is really notable about this school is its long-term transformation. A decade ago it was near the bottom of the league tables, and was named and shamed as one of the 20 worst secondaries in the country.

Today it is a specialist sports college and a leading-edge school. It has been held up as an example of workforce remodelling, featuring in the Cabinet Office booklet on public services reform, "Leading from the front line". Mr Hargrave has now been brought in to rescue its failing neighbour, the Ramsgate school, at present in special measures.

The 1,086-pupil Canterbury high serves housing estates on the outskirts of the historic Kent city, which is a magnet for tourists.

Kent still has the 11-plus, and selective grammar, church-aided and independent schools take many able pupils. Attainment in Year 7 at Canterbury high is well below average and nearly 19 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

But the school has steadily improved since league tables began, when just 4 per cent of students gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. This year the figure was 39 per cent.

Today Keith Hargrave, who has been head for 18 years, says he knew when his school had turned the corner: "The TV cameras stopped turning up on our doorstep."

At the time the school's buildings were in a bad way. "The place was a dump. It wasn't fit for pigs," he says.

Around the main school building was a "village" of mobile classrooms. A science teacher once had to be rescued when she fell through a rotten floor.

Frustrated by a lack of investment in the school by Kent education authority, it had already opted to become grant-maintained in 1992.

Gradually throughout the 1990s exam results improved, more students started staying on in the sixth form and it invested in its buildings. "We started to attract children who wanted to come here, as opposed to those who couldn't get in anywhere else," says Mr Hargrave.

One outstanding aspect of Canterbury high today is its sports facilities.

These include a pound;4.5 million sports centre, built through a private finance initiative, with a hall, dance studios and a fitness suite that wouldn't look out of place in an exclusive health club.

There is also an athletics track, a new sports science department and an indoor tennis centre is due to open in the New Year.

The school runs academies for elite young sportsmen and women from throughout the South, in partnerships with the Amateur Athletic Association, the Rugby Football Union, the Lawn Tennis Association and Charlton Athletic Football Club.

But the biggest changes have come in the classroom. In September 2002, the school effectively declared "year zero", bringing in wholesale changes to its working practices.

Feeling that the traditional model of year heads and tutor groups was outdated and simply was not working, Mr Hargrave and his team bravely abolished them.

In their place, the school has a system of key stage managers, year managers and mentors.

Key stage managers are teachers - one to help Year 7 pupils make the transition, and one each for key stage 3, GCSE and sixth-form students.

Students have learning mentors, who can be either teachers or support staff. Those who are teachers have mentoring sessions built into their timetables once a week, and can take children out of normal lessons and give them tailored work programmes.

Responsibility for tackling badly behaved students and for pastoral support lies with year managers - teaching assistants who handle issues such as truancy, poor behaviour and lateness, and liaise with parents.

The year managers have been chosen from a range of backgrounds - for example, one is an ex-policeman used to dealing with juveniles. They are available from 8.30am until 4.30pm to deal with behaviour and pastoral issues.

Keith Hargrave says: "Effectively they do the job that the old-fashioned year head would have done, except that they are full-time. They're not trying to do it while attempting to teach a class."

The changes have seen a huge increase in the numbers of teaching assistants - the school now has around 90 teachers and 60 support staff.

One of the year managers is Debbie McDermott, a teaching assistant and trained nursery nurse. She has worked at the school for six years but only took on her new role managing Year 8 students in September.

"I think it works well," she says. "Everybody pulls together and communication has improved."

Mr Hargrave believes the benefits are already showing in improved exam results - this year its percentage of five A* to Cs was 10 per cent higher than in 2002.

"Our teachers teach and our teaching assistants do everything else," he says.

The school's most exciting development is still to come. In a Department for Education and Skills-backed pilot, from next April it is due to federate with adjacent Beauherne primary.

With added nursery provision and plans to transfer Canterbury's adult education classes into new pound;3.5m buildings on the site, which will also house a new performing arts centre, it will bring all-age education to what Hargrave calls the Canterbury campus.

"It's very exciting," he says. "The intention is that sixth- formers will be able to take advantage of what's going on in adult education.

"We'll have cradle to the grave on one site, operated by the federation for the benefit of the community."

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