You are now entering a 'can do' area

1st April 2011 at 01:00
In the first of an occasional series on turning around failing schools, Nick Morrison reports on how a secondary in High Wycombe discarded its reputation as `the Prison on the Hill'. But it has taken far more than motivational slogans to get on the path to sustainable success

It is a fair way from the road to the front door, but a succession of bold, red signs on the verge intermittently punctuates the journey. These are not warning signs, however. "Contribute to Society" reads the first, followed by "Aspire and Achieve", with "Celebrate Success" drawing you into the school.

Once inside the school, they are matched by signs in the corridors, warning passers-by "You are now entering a can-do area".

It would be easy to dismiss them as a gimmick, the sort of phrases that trip all too easily off the tongues of motivational speakers. Headteacher Shena Moynihan acknowledges they can appear cheesy. But she believes they are part of a revolution in attitudes that has transformed the school's fortunes.

"It sounds a bit trite, but the children are absorbing these positive messages," she says.

Her school, Highcrest Community School in High Wycombe, was a Fresh Start, the last government's scheme to close schools that were deemed to be beyond salvation and reopen them under a different name and with a different leadership team.

Pupils at the predecessor school, Hatters Lane, were known locally as "Mad Hatters". The school itself was nicknamed "the Prison on the Hill". In its last year, 13 per cent of pupils got five A*-Cs at GCSE; around 5 per cent if English and maths is included.

But it took more than a name change and a few promises to win over local sceptics. In its first year, only four pupils out of its 120-strong intake named Highcrest as their first choice. Nor has it been an overnight success. The school's results have been on an upward curve since it opened, but not enough to keep it out of the first tranche of National Challenge schools in 2008.

Even when Tom Bosley was choosing his secondary school, Highcrest's reputation preceded it. "It was a bit of a dump," he says. "You really didn't want to go there."

Six years on, Tom, now 15, is head boy and Highcrest is still on the up. Last summer 83 per cent of pupils got five A*-Cs at GCSE, 45 per cent including English and maths, lifting it well above the 30 per cent National Challenge threshold. In November, Ofsted judged the school "outstanding". Not only is it now oversubscribed, but 141 Year 7 pupils turned up on the first day in September, when it has an official admission limit of 130.

This is despite being a non-selective school in a selective area: around 40 per cent of potential pupils are creamed off by grammar schools. About 43 per cent of Highcrest pupils have special needs, more than twice the national average. A third speak English as an additional language.

But these were not the only obstacles she had to overcome on arriving at Highcrest a decade ago. "The lower school were prepared to give it a go and work with us, but Years 10 and 11 had practically run the school and they were very resentful of the new order," she says.

Despite their objections, Ms Moynihan had a clear idea of what she wanted to do at Highcrest. She had three aims in mind, aims that she believes are pretty much universal in turning around a school.

One was to change the diet the students were getting, not just in the range of subjects they were offered, but also in extra-curricular activities. Second was to change what was happening in the classroom, showing the pupils that teachers were prepared to put the effort in to make lessons interesting. Third was to improve behaviour.

But these cannot be tackled in isolation. All three have to improve together.

"You can't just change behaviour, you have to make the children feel valued," Ms Moynihan says. "You have to show that you care about their education before you can engage them.

"And if you try to change teaching and learning without changing behaviour or provision, you are forcing the kids to do something they can't and forcing the teachers to teach in an environment that is unteachable."

The curriculum was in need of a complete overhaul, says deputy head Ian Newton. He says that under the old order, pupils were only offered GCSEs, regardless of ability. Some were told they had to take French and Spanish, and that some Spanish lessons would run after school. There was no streaming by ability. "It took a couple of years to disentangle," says Mr Newton.

But disentangle it they did. Vocational courses were introduced, as was streaming by ability. The school now works with the local further education college to offer courses in hairdressing and beauty therapy, and runs a motor mechanics course in conjunction with a local charity. There are also languages qualifications up to Year 9, on top of a full range of GCSE courses.

"There is an appropriate course for every student," says Ms Moynihan. "It is a very individualised curriculum."

But offering the right courses was only part of the solution. The lessons themselves also had to become more appealing.

Assistant headteacher Glen Burke says poor standards of behaviour meant that little learning was taking place in lessons.

"The lessons were a combination of the teacher controlling the minority and the rest sitting there and just ticking off the lessons, not getting involved in any learning," he says.

A preliminary step was to make the environment more appealing. Although promised new buildings failed to materialise, the new leadership team was undaunted and set about repainting the interior and organising displays in the classrooms. The motivational signs came next, along with photographs of pupils around the school to celebrate their successes.

The teachers brought in Brain Gym exercises, plus a host of other strategies and games, to get pupils ready to learn and interested in lessons. But the management team knew it was still falling short.

"We threw all these things in, but we were probably only involving those who were willing to participate," says Mr Burke. "We were still missing about a quarter of the group."

New strategies included using mini-whiteboards, where every pupil had to put something down, and a "no hands-up" approach. A traffic light system was developed for school planners, where students signal how much they understand, and the school council carried out a teaching audit, highlighting the ways pupils wanted to learn, which was fed back into the staffroom.

Behaviour was the final piece in the jigsaw. Building on the work to improve teaching and learning, part of the approach was to provide a range of opportunities for pupils to get involved, from being a prefect or a member of the school council - complete with training in how to run a meeting - to designing the summer uniform.

"You can change the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom, but if the children don't have ownership of what is going on you have a fight on your hands," says Ms Moynihan.

And while consistent use of sanctions is crucial, she believes that a parallel system of praise and reward is just as important. Every pupil gets a map of what provision they need, from gifted and talented activities to anger management.

And it was consistency - in behaviour management as in other areas - that proved to be the key. "Children make mistakes and clearly there need to be sanctions, but unless you do something else as well they are doomed to repeat those mistakes," she says.

"Some of our prefects have come close to leaving the school at times but they have turned themselves around. It is good for the school to say you need never be written off and you can always change."

Chante is proof that pupils can change. Now 14, when she arrived at the school in Year 8 she admits she had a bad temper. "I didn't like being told what to do," she says. "I was always lashing out at other pupils."

She was excluded after throwing a chair at a teacher, but a meeting with pastoral staff on her return convinced her to change her ways. "They said they would give me another chance," Chante says. "When they show you they see something good in you, you start to think that maybe there is."

John, now in Year 12, was referred for anger management when exam stress started to get to him. "They gave me techniques to stop me getting to the point where I had to lash out at people," he says.

His career at Highcrest maps the transformation at the school. When he arrived at 11, he says: "There was a lot of trouble and fights." But he has seen it change before his eyes, adding that now, "I would recommend people come here."

Jimmy, in Year 7, was told he would not get any extra help at Highcrest. He has found the opposite to be the case. "There is lots of support and people I can go to," he says. One such example is a special unit to help pupils with their reading. "A couple of weeks ago I read four books in 20 minutes," he adds proudly.

Ms Moynihan is confident that the changes to the school will last. There has been no quick-fix at Highcrest: results have been improving rapidly and Ofsted's verdict has gone from "good" to "good with outstanding features" to "outstanding".

"The challenge that we have will never go away, but the processes are embedded," the head says. "This isn't a school that is vulnerable. It will continue on its journey to be better because it has got real foundations."

Back in the school's reception, yet another sign reinforces this confidence. "83 per cent A*-C grades", it reads. "Why would you go anywhere else?"

Have you turned around your school's fortunes? Email if you would like us to tell your story


- Be consistent in everything you do. As soon as you start something new, always do the same things.

- Once you have taken a decision, stick to your guns and make sure there is no wriggle-room for kids to find their way around the system.

- As senior leaders, once you have made a decision, you must provide the required amount of support to make sure it really does happen.

- Know with complete clarity what you are aiming at. Pick out the most important ambitions for your institution and break them down into manageable chunks.

- The pace has to feel a bit unrealistic. If it feels realistic, it is too slow.

- It is not the quick hits that make a difference: it is about embedding policies and practices.

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