Where you come from doesn't matter

9th May 2008 at 01:00
A recent visit by a former A-level student has got me thinking about my school, and the community it serves
A recent visit by a former A-level student has got me thinking about my school, and the community it serves.

Katie popped in to say hello, and to ask rather sheepishly whether I could sign her passport photo. In her unassuming and self-effacing manner, she happened to mention that she now needed a passport as she was off to Harvard University in the United States.

After getting her four A-grade A-levels at Pen y Dre High School, and while now studying psychology at Bath University, Katie has been awarded a one-year placement as research assistant to the leading academic Professor Stephen M Kosslyn. He is one of the world's experts in cognitive neuropsychology, best known as the author of Wet Mind and Image and Brain.

"Not bad for a Gurnos girl," Katie may have said, if it was her style to say such things.

When you hear the Gurnos Estate mentioned in the press, the prestigious universities of Harvard and Oxford do not readily spring to mind as obvious reference points.

Images of social deprivation, crime, and the lurid headlines of the tabloid press have, over the years, sought to portray a community that has little sense of self-worth and little expectation of achievement. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the absolute joys of working in a school such as mine is the possibility of making a profound and lasting difference to the lives of the children we work with. It is an environment in which, to borrow a well-known educational phrase, every child really does matter.

The teachers and support staff value pupils for what they will become, not for what some expect them to be. Admittedly, it is not every day that a former pupil will tell you that they are off to work at the academic home of the American elite, but rewards for teachers and learners are plentiful.

Two years ago, the school celebrated its best-ever GCSE results, and we expect to do the same this year. Our value-added puts us in the upper quartile of all schools with a similar social intake.

For the past three years, some of our brightest pupils have gone on to study at Oxford as well as other leading universities, and we work hard with local colleges and employers to make sure all of our pupils are equipped with the skills they need for future study and employment. Hardly anyone now leaves our school without meaningful qualifications.

So what do we do that's so special? We certainly don't claim to care more than other teachers and schools about wanting the best for their learners.

My time in a leafy suburban school in Nottingham was just as busy, but the challenges were different. At Pen y Dre, the focus is unrelentingly on finding out what learners can and cannot do, what skills they need, and how best we can provide these.

We continue to innovate in inclusion and intervention strategies, and are developing learning pathways throughout the key stages that are better suited to the myriad skills and needs of our learners.

"Super-schools" sports competitions, magnificent drama productions, links with schools in countries such as South Africa, charity work in Poland - and closer to home - debating, and a whole range of extra-curricular opportunities, all help pupils to achieve in contexts outside the traditional classroom environment.

As our learners become more complex, the demands placed upon us and them increase exponentially.

But as Katie's success proves, it's not where you come from that matters - it's where you want to go.

Keith Maher is assistant head at Pen Y Dre High School in Merthyr Tydfil.

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