The national inspection agency, Ofsted, last week published a list of the 50 most improved schools it had visited in the past year. Murray White found Catholic headteachers happy to be included but sceptical about the table's lasting value.
TOM MOORE, THE ebullient headmaster of St Mary's High School, Derbyshire, was initially delighted to be.included last week among Ofsted's "beacons of excellence", SO schools which the national inspection body deemed to be be the most improved in the country.
But when he sat down and thought about the significance of the plaudit, he was no longer so sure. "If you consider it, only 900 schools were inspected by Ofsted last year. If you changed the criteria used, they would throw up a very different list of schools. Nonetheless, it was gratifying to be included."
So how did Her Majesty's finest inspectors arrive at their list of favoured school? In most basic terms they simply took, from among those schools they had inspected, those which registered more than a ten per cent rise in pupils gaining five or more GCSEs at grades A-C. But, for example, there was no consideration of the starting point. If one school had a blip, a particularly bad year in 1992, were they necessarily improving better to have simply got hack on track by 1994, wondered headteachers.
Tom Moore, like virtually every headteacher you care to speak to, is rightly proud of academic success. The number of pupils at his Chesterfield comprehensive in the "five plus A-Cs" category has risen from 60 to 70 per cent in the past two years. But, as he argued, it can sometimes be a case of swings and roundabouts.
Raising standards is one thing, maintaining them in a difficult economic climate is entirely another. Last week's meagre pay review announced by the Government, with little actual extra cash distributed, has hardly been greeted with shouts of joy in the staffrooms "It is difficult," reflected Mr Moore. "To fund a 2.7 per cent pay rise with no help from the Government is hard. We are fortunate in one sense that St Mary's has been badly funded for a number of years; our staffing levels are already low."
Whatever the state of the coffers, the 'success' of a school is much more than results. "Pupils have to be happy, well motivated, disciplined, and be given the opportunity to take their place in society. That's true of everyone from university material to special needs students," continued Mr Moore, pointing out that the latter never appear on league tables but are highly valued by the school.
This well-rounded approach was echoed elsewhere. John Marshall, headmaster of St Thomas More High, North Shields another jewel on the Ofsted crown is keen to espouse the elements of a school which never make it onto attainment tables.
"Visitors regularly comment on the good atmosphere. There is a strong sense of care for the individual, even if that is sometimes hard to muster at 3.30pm on a Friday afternoon when we're all tired," he smiled.
His Tyneside comprehensive, is a relatively "new" school, the fruits of a merger between St Anselm's, North Shields, and St Aiden's, Wallsend, in 1988. Staff and governors had to work hard early on to build a new reputation.
There was a certain leakage of pupils in the early days as parents adjusted to the new larger institution. But confidence grew, and today the 1,100 pupil school is heavily oversubscribed.
With confidence has come results. There has been a 100 per cent improvement in GCSE results in the past six years: in 1988, only a little more than a quarter of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A-C; by last year more than a half were reaching that target.
This is a record that John Marshall is proud of, though again he was keen to paint a wider picture.
He enthused about a vibrant music department, whose highlight was when the senior choir last year performed with the Northern Symphonia. More than 150 pupils currently receive personal tuition.
In an age when examination league tables are all, schools do feel under pressure to succeed, he believed. "But most of my teachers are able to get on with the job in hand. The-school has to be seen to be successful, but that is in all senses, academic and in other areas".