Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Have Faith In Your Pupils

Published By: The Independent - 14 Jan 2010

The Becket School, just south-west of Nottingham city centre, is the most successful non-selective school in the country for A level results, topped in the comprehensive school league tables only by a school offering the International Baccalaureate. Yet some of its students come from three of the most deprived areas in country, including from the city’s notorious St Ann’s area, known for its drugs and guns, and until this autumn it was struggling to operate on two sites more than a mile apart, with woefully outdated resources – sixth formers say it was often hard to find a computer to work on in their private study time.

So is the secret of its success, quite simply, that it is a Catholic school? After all, church schools are well-known for doing better than their mainstream peers.

Visit The Becket School’s striking new campus and, despite the large silver cross on the chapel façade, it quickly becomes clear that the answer is not as simple as some might think.

In fact head Tony Glover stresses emphatically that the school does not have the advantages that cynics traditionally attribute to faith schools. It does not filter out less-desirable pupils, or have an advantageous catchment area, but takes in a truly comprehensive mix of abilities from a range of backgrounds and deals with the same problems as any maintained school.

On the other hand, faith imbues everything that the school does, and these deeply-held values clearly underpin the school’s astonishing A level achievements – last year’s students attained a 99.7 per cent pass rate, with 65 per cent of those passes at A and B grades, and 83 per cent at A, B and C grades, across a wide spread of subjects. The school is both a specialist science and humanities college and nearly half of the current sixth formers are studying at least one science either at AS or A2 level, which is not typical of most sixth forms.

“The key to our success is that we emphasise that everyone here is an individual,” says Glover. “This is what we are about as Catholics. And every one of our young people gets a lot of individual support. Our teachers are always willing to go that extra mile. Every day, at break and lunch times, you will find staff talking to students about their studies.”

The 220-strong sixth form is avowedly academic. Students need six good GCSE passes, including three B grades for their chosen subjects, to get in, and the focus is all on A levels. The school closely monitors students’ progress and constantly reviews its teaching and learning. Recently, it has been trying to give students more say about what works in the classroom for them and what doesn’t.

“Whatever we believe we are giving them, only they know what they are getting out of it,” says Glover, who has been head for 10 years, “and you have missed a trick if have failed to engage all your learners.”

In fact he runs his whole school on a principle of distributed leadership, with every teacher linked to a member of the core leadership team. “And I am concerned to spread leadership behaviour throughout the school, to students too, so that everyone is adopting a leadership approach, looking ahead, anticipating barriers and thinking about how to overcome them.”

Paul Burke, the assistant head who oversees the sixth form, also stresses the value of respecting and empowering pupils. “Students here have a lot of ownership over their learning. They also organise a lot of events themselves, and for the past two years we have turned the sixth form brochure over to them – it’s all done in their words entirely. “And we’re not just about results. It’s the ethos that really matters, it’s all about people caring for each other. You’ll find very few assemblies here talking about results. Instead we talk about values, about what it means to be a human being.”

However, he says, The Becket School is not “a soft school”. Teachers are always made aware of problems and pushed to do better, and students know what is expected of them. But conflicts are always dealt with in a spirit of respect and reconciliation “and because of the tone and the spirit in which we do things, we tend to find that people are willing to listen to ideas that might be less than welcome.”

Students know they can turn to their form tutor, an individual teacher or even a member of the administrative staff for help and advice, but there is no rigid model for student support. “You can’t put these things down in writing,” says Burke, “ otherwise it becomes one person’s job and everyone else thinks it’s not their responsibility.” Specialist preparation is available to those who are aiming for the top – the school regularly sends students to Oxbridge -- but struggling students also get good help. And all learning is highly active. “Walk into anyone’s lessons and you will find a lot of interaction,” says Burke. “ We don’t believe in people sitting in lines, taking notes.”

Tony Glover is keen for The Becket School to contribute to the national education debate. The school’s work on student involvement is being developed in a pioneering partnership with schools in the south-east, and he is a ‘national leader of education’, which means he has a role supporting struggling schools and advising on education policy.

But for students it is the day-to-day atmosphere of the school that matters most. Head boy Leo Dolan, 17, says: “There’s absolutely no pressure to be cool or to be in any particular group. I have my own friends but I also speak to every boy in my year.” Head girl Sarah Cotter agrees. “The sixth form committee organises lots of Becket parties. We do one at the beginning of the year, and one in November, and one for Valentine’s day, and everyone from Years 12 and 13 comes.”

Alicia Vaz, 17, says, “If you are struggling the teachers are always there to help you, and they talk to you about what careers you want to go into, and help you with your UCAS form.”

“Right from the beginning everyone was so welcoming,” says Philippa (correct spelling) Haddow, who joined the sixth form from a private girls’ school. “We work hard but we have lots of fun as well. I’m really glad I came here.”