'They don't just stand at the front'

From the outside Huntington School is unremarkable. A flat-roofed, high-maintenance building, a labyrinth of corridors, a range of mobile classrooms. Apart from expansive playing fields, it is not blessed physically.

Life on the inside of this York comprehensive is much more impressive. The simple but effective reason why Huntington has been named as one of Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead's 159 successful schools is that utmost priority is given to the quality of teaching.

A peep into most classrooms will reveal children sitting in rows listening, discussing, writing "on task" (to use the jargon). A lesson for the least able pupils in Year 7 and another for English high-fliers in Year 10 show teachers firing a range of questions at pupils eager to contribute, moving around the desks, attentive to each response. "They don't just stand at the front, " one pupil said of staff, but they do hold the whole class.

In their report on the school, Office for Standards in Education inspectors stated: "Academic standards are consistently among the highest in the country ... Students across an unusually wide range of abilities achieve high standards and fulfil their potential to a remarkable degree."

Despite its truly comprehensive intake of 1,500 children from leafy suburbs, council estates, urban and rural, rich and poor, Huntington's exam results are well above the national average: 63 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A-C, and A-level students last year earned an average 25.4 points compared with a national figure of 16.8.

Tests taken by children when they enter the school in Year 7 show them to be average in most areas of the curriculum but below average in maths.

Keith Wragg, the headteacher, said: "What's important is what happens to them when they've been in this school for two or three years. My teachers must be able to teach across the whole ability range."

Sixth-form teachers, singled out for their high standards, also take classes of the less able lower down the school. "I think it helps tremendously in monitoring pupil progress if teachers are familiar with the skills required at A-level," said Mr Wragg. "They can then develop those skills in pupils lower down the school."

Mr Wragg, a chemist himself, puts aside one day a week to teach. "To be seen to be a good teacher is an important part of my job," he said. "It's what gives credibility."

In its seminal Eleven Factors for Effective Schools, London University's Institute of Education included: having a head as the "leading professional"; shared vision and goals; an orderly atmosphere; concentration on teaching and learning; purposeful teaching, and high expectations of both staff and pupils. All of these would be true of Huntington.

Last week, in a tribute to David Edwards - Huntington's deputy head who was to succeed Mr Wragg to the headship but who died suddenly - Geoff Barton, the school's head of English, wrote in The TES: "... he made us feel that to be a teacher ... is perhaps the most important thing you can do."

Staff certainly display a great deal of professional pride and academic vigilance, and this is backed up by firm, clear discipline and a strong pastoral system. For example, staff regularly visit feeder primary schools, and parents of prospective Year 7 pupils are called in for interviews.

The first morning of the new school year is reserved for Year 7 entrants who are allowed first into lunch for the first two weeks of term. "Pupils could feel lost in a school this size, but we make every effort to ensure they settle in and feel confident," said Mr Wragg."

Homework diaries provide regular contact between parent, teacher and pupil and pupils are given regular feedback and assessment.

Music (classical, jazz and rock), drama and sports clubs play a large part in extra-curricular life. With two orchestras and numerous trios and quartets "there's no hanging about at lunchtime", said 15-year-old Sarah Bell.

Sixth-formers are involved in classroom support lower down the school and seem happy to encourage younger pupils. The sixth-form drama group, for example, is planning to hold workshops and drama games for 11- and 12-year-olds. Chris Hatliff, 18, said: "There are always people to help you here. Providing pupils behave, they can succeed and have fun as well."

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