Even the most challenging schools can keep on driving up pupils'
attainment, according to research in deprived former coal-mining communities.
But teachers have to be especially committed and energetic, while their schools have to be well-led and sustain a wide range of activities "relentlessly" focused on improving teaching and learning.
The research, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, comes after The TES revealed that the results gap between the weakest secondaries and the rest has grown since Labour was elected (TES, May 23). Since 1997, the percentage of pupils getting five Cs or better has risen 4 percentage points in the poorest performers, compared to an average 6.5.
Eleven of the 23 schools yet to hit the Government's "floor" target of at least 15 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C GCSEs do not expect to do so this summer.
Last month, Barbara MacGilchrist, deputy director of London University's Institute of Education, reported that even the most successful primaries "hit a wall" after three years of continuous improvement, and previous research has suggested the same effect in secondaries.
The secondaries in the study improved over five years, though researchers, from Warwick and Bath universities, concede that in two of the six, changes in intake contributed to improved results.
The initial proportions of pupils getting five good GCSEs ranged from 13 to 30 per cent, with one at an above-average 47 per cent in 1998. Between 13.5 and 34.5 per cent of pupils were entitled to free school meals. All except one of the six improved results over five years, by up to 21 percentage points.
External factors affecting improvements included extra cash arriving via education action zones and adoption of specialist or "faith" status to improve the school's standing in the community.
The key factor was a "relentless" focus on teaching and learning, combined with good leadership from the head. The schools carried out a range of initiatives well, focusing heavily on literacy and numeracy. Others included mentoring, expanded extra-curricular activities, careful monitoring of pupil data and improved staff training .
One school created an "express" group of potentially high achievers, to "segregate them from peers whom teachers suggested would pull them down".
"We do a better job than Eton because we have a harder job," said one headteacher.
Professor Alma Harris, of Warwick University, said the study showed any challenging school could improve: "It's the consistent, relentless attention to improving the quality of teaching and learning that moves things forward."
"Raising Attainment in Schools in Former Coalfields Areas", Alma Harris, Daniel Muijs and Christopher Chapman, Warwick University, and Louise Stoll and Jen Russ, Bath University, see www.dfes.gov.ukresearch Primary forum, 23