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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 08:59 GMT
How we made our failing schools special
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Head teachers Kathy Heaps and Sandy Young
Kathy Heaps and Sandy Young have transformed their schools' fortunes
Thirteen years ago, Sandy Young and Kathy Heaps took over as the heads of two neighbouring schools in dire trouble.

GCSE pass rates were low and each had less than half its intended number of pupils.

John Kelly Boys' School and John Kelly Girls' School had failed the children of Neasden, north-west London.

"If we had gone on the way things were, I don't think we would have survived," Mr Young said.

"It was a hopeless situation in many ways."

In 1994, however, a little-noticed change occurred. The then Conservative government introduced "specialist" schools.

No longer 'bog-standard'?

After they had raised 100,000 from the local community, comprehensives could apply for this new status.

It meant greater funding and a focus on one academic area, with the aim of dragging up results in other subjects on the National Curriculum, like maths and English.

The two John Kelly schools got the cash together and became part of the first batch of 40 specialist schools in England.

They both became "technology colleges".

In these, design technology and information and communication technology (ICT) are compulsory for all students to the age of 16.


The current government has accelerated the Conservatives' policy, putting specialist schools at the vanguard of efforts to raise standards.

It now requires just 50,000 to apply for a change of status. There have even been suggestions that all secondary schools in England could one day be eligible.

But does the change come at the expense of diversity? What if John Kelly pupils want to concentrate on non-technology subjects?

At both schools it is possible to study a second foreign language GCSE only in pupils' free time, such are the timetable demands of the specialism and the National Curriculum.

I tried two other places. The first didn't have a lot of computers. The other only had one computer room for the whole sixth form
Sarrosh, 18

Alecia, 16, wants to go on to take language A-levels at sixth form.

GCSE Spanish is part of her daily round of lessons, but to do GCSE French, she has to attend a special class after school finishes.

Alecia said: "I don't mind. I chose to come here. We have a lot of facilities that other schools don't. I don't feel I'm missing out. This is a good school.

"I thought it would be better coming here than a specialist language college, as I've gained so much else."

The girls' school gives language students live video-conferencing with pupils in France.

An A-level class recently had an interactive master class with a mathematician at Cambridge University.

Mr Young insists the technology is there to aid pupils in all subjects, not to push them in a single direction, regardless of their talents or ambitions.

"We are obliged to teach the National Curriculum. But also we are obliged to emphasise maths, science, design technology and ITC," he said.


Both heads say this "emphasis" should not conflict with traditional education, but complement it.

Sarrosh, 18, left John Kelly Girls' Technology College two years ago to start at another sixth form, but soon returned.

She said: "I tried two other places. The first didn't have a lot of computers. We shared one between about 10 of us.

"When I went to another place, they only had one computer room for the whole sixth form. Here, you have computers everywhere."

Specialist schools, which can also focus on sports, the arts, science, languages or business, get an extra 126 per year per pupil.

The money has enabled the two John Kellys to invest heavily in technology.

Alecia, 16
Alecia wants to go on to study languages at A-level

This did not happen previously in Neasden, a deprived area of the borough of Brent.

At the two schools, 40% of pupils have special needs, and 40% get free school meals.

Some 42 languages are spoken.

"It's a really difficult area to work," Mrs Heaps said. "What our specialist school is about is not just offering the National Curriculum but the National Curriculum-Plus, giving them more than normal.

"We are entirely non-selective, so everyone gets a chance. But the children have so many more opportunities than they would in a normal school.

"A few weeks ago, some sixth-formers had a link-up to Kenya, where they spoke to a Nobel prize-winning scientist, who discussed his work with malaria. They had just the most fantastic discussion.

"It was spine-tingling. I would say that 97% of schools still don't have that sort of thing going on. Where else would many of the kids here ever experience that?"

'Not elitist'

Enthusiasm for continued learning has grown, with 65% of the boys and 50% of the girls staying on at sixth-form.

When Mr Young and Mrs Heaps started in 1990, both schools were barely half-full and often the last choice among local parents. Today, they are over-subscribed.

The number of girls getting five GCSEs/GNVQs at grade A* to C has more than doubled since 1994. For boys it has risen by 17% to 41% in two years.

Both schools are open from 7.30am to 5pm each week day, as a "community facility".

Their buildings, mostly completed in 1958, are not pretty but some corporate-style rebranding has taken place.

A firm has designed a simple logo with four colours - green, purple, blue and sandy yellow. These broadly represent the Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Asian, Middle-Eastern and European cultures of the children.

'Try our best'

The schools have also created links with 13 other secondaries and 11 primaries, sharing ideas for improvement.

However one feels about specialists, there is a palpable buzz among the pupils and staff at the two John Kellys.

They have to re-bid for their status every four years, by proving to the Department for Education and Skills that they have maintained standards.

If not, they lose the extra funding.

"It's not elitist. It does not matter who comes here, we will try our best to give them a better education," Mr Young said.

"I would recommend to any school that it should become a specialist."

Mrs Heaps added: "It made us feel special when we first became a specialist. For the first time, John Kelly had achieved something. It still makes us feel special now."

  • The two John Kelly technology colleges have both won national awards from the Specialist Schools Trust for their work helping other schools.

    Specialist schools scheme defended
    04 Jun 03  |  Education
    Specialist schools 'not justified'
    22 May 03  |  Education
    Doubts over greater school diversity
    27 Nov 02  |  Education

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