On the down-at-heel coastal strip, a headteacher has shown that disadvantage is just one more hurdle to be jumped. Sheila Wallis talks to Gerald Haigh
The very name Worthing carries an air of gentility. It seems, well, worthy somehow - the kind of place that still has high street banks with managers who drive Rovers. And yes, some parts are like that. But drive in from Hove via Shoreham, along the coast road that lies south of the main A27, and you pass through a series of neighbourhoods that plainly belie any preconception of South Coast affluence. You can well believe that Worthing has its share of low-income families.
Davison High School, for example, which serves the eastern part of the town is a successful, oversubscribed beacon school, although it is by no means privileged in its intake. Census figures for the ward served by the school show that it has significantly more children in overcrowded homes than neighbouring wards. Fewer children come from higher social class households: 19.6 per cent, compared with a national average of 31 per cent. As the head, Sheila Wallis, puts it: "We're a girls school, not a 'gels' school."
She arrived at Davison, as a PE teacher, in 1971. Ten years later she became deputy head, and in 1988 she was finally appointed to the headship.
Born in Croydon, she trained in the early 1960s at Chelsea PE College, one of a group of specialist colleges - Carnegie, Anstey, Loughborough - that produced a cadre of secondary PE teachers whose values and expertise spread far beyond their departments. They knew how to teach children about discipline, about fairness, about appropriate dress and behaviour. And all of that shows in everything that Sheila Wallis says and does.
"In the gym," she says, "I wanted girls to know that the ability to walk upside down on your hands was not the main thing I valued. I wanted them to know how to work together and how to learn to be good winners and losers."
Did she ever feel disadvantaged on the career ladder? "I never saw it as an issue," she says. "I'd like to see many more PE, art and music teachers in headship. If the only thing holding them back is their own feelings about their subjects, then that's sad."
As head, she embarked on plans and projects that have continued unabated right up to the present day. Driving it all is her determination to improve opportunities for girls and to raise their aspirations. "I wanted to promote maths and science and technology for girls and to open their eyes to all careers," she says.
Right from the start of her headship, she has put her principles into action. Recalling her own experience of juggling a career and a young family, she explains how she opened an on-site creche, in partnership with the Midland Bank. "You can't talk about women in the workplace and not do something about it," she says, pointing out that the creche, which has places for 28 children under four, is a powerful aid to the recruitment and retention of teachers.
Early in her headship, too, she embarked on a programme to improve the school's science and technology rooms, tearing out old brown benches and stools and installing light, colour-coded furniture and equipment, all designed to make the rooms more welcoming. And gaining technology college status three years ago enabled even more improvements to be made.
Sheila Wallis has strong views on the effect of the school environment on learning. Over the recent summer holidays, for example, the toilets have been refurbished to a high standard. "If children are surrounded by a care for all aspects of their life," she says, "then they respond. So we want the toilets to be like hotel toilets, or the bathroom at home." In this she is well supported by the local authority, and she speaks highly of the way West Sussex serves schools in the purchase of furniture and equipment. Where many authorities have lost or run down their supplies departments, West Sussex has nearly all of its schools buying from the county. The supplies officer, Maurice Smith, points out that the authority's buying power and the department's expertise save a lot of money and time.
"Headteachers have total confidence in us," he says. "They know we will offer value for money."
Some of Sheila Wallis's most radical thinking, though, has been directed at the way learning is organised at Davison, particularly in the approach to GCSE. As a result, the school now has a regime in which about 25 girls considered "gifted and talented" take GCSE early and move on to an AS module.
At the other end of the academic scale is a programme called "Bridging the Gap" in which about a dozen girls take a limited number of GCSEs combined with work experience - the two-year GCSE course is broken down into a series of four-week sessions in school, each followed by two weeks on placement. The aim is to keep less academically inclined students motivated by showing them the relationship between work and learning.
"So if a girl wanted a career as a driver, for example," Sheila Wallis explains, "we'd send her to do two weeks with a taxi firm, where she'd learn how to answer the phone and deal with people, and she'd also have to learn some local geography. We'd also encourage her to study geography back in school. Then perhaps in the next half term she'd go to a retail firm and see the vehicles arriving and learn about loading, capacity, volume, the tachograph."
The whole approach, because it recognises that students progress at different rates, she calls Extending Differentiation Into Time Allocation (Edita). On account of such innovations, the school has an excellent GCSE record by comparison with others of its type - 75 per cent of pupils achieve A*-C, 100 per cent A to G.
The more you see of Sheila Wallis's work, the more you realise that she's driven by two principles. The first of these is a commitment to inclusion - this is seen at one level in the creche, which allows mothers to be included in the workplace, and at another level in the Edita approach to curriculum planning.
And there are many other examples. For instance, the school runs a Saturday morning programme for eight to 12 year olds who don't have computers at home. This "youth university", as she calls it, gives children access to the school's ICT facilities and is run in conjunction with local business and public bodies such as the police.
Then there is Davison's participation in the East Worthing RAG (Red, Amber, Green) project, which involves local schools and the community in a drive to improve attendance.
You could go on: there's the newly installed lift giving full access for all abilities to the school's upper floor for which students and friends of the school raised pound;100,000; there's the Technobus, soon to be delivered, which will take information technology out to rural primaries and communities; and for her own colleagues there's the Expert Trail, a programme of continuous professional development in which staff work through levels of study and research, each carrying a salary enhancement.
The second driving influence is a refusal to be put off by problems and objections. She has worked tirelessly on business links and with the local authority to see her plans reach fruition. She has realised plans that you just know must have raised eyebrows in her own staffroom and at county hall.
The ideas haven't stopped coming, either, even though common sense tells you that she's reached the stage at which most heads have usually begun to calculate their lump sums. In the back of her mind is the embryo of a plan to keep disaffected Year 9s on track by getting them to work with local companies.
"You know," she says, "every business park has empty units. I'd like to give children the opportunity to have some work experience and be taught by groups of teachers who could pay the companies back by giving basic literacy lessons to trainees and apprentices."
And considering Sheila Wallis's track record, the scheme might well work.