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Bach to school: Classical music used to improve Croydon's worst secondary

After years of instability led to a damning Ofsted report and Croydon's worst GCSE results, Westwood Girls' College is no more. Chief reporter Gareth Davies visited the newly opened Harris Academy Upper Norwood to witness a fresh start for one of the borough's most troubled schools.

AS I walked into the reception of what was, until a matter of weeks ago, Westwood Girls' College, I was greeted by an unexpected sound.

Not the din of pupils travelling between classes or playing outside, nor teachers telling them to slow down or tuck their shirts in, but Chopin's piano solo Etude #1 in C major.

Classical music does not just flow through the reception area either. It is now played in the school hall and many of its corridors.

"That's one of my ideas," said Chris Everitt, head teacher of newly opened Harris Academy Upper Norwood.

"Surprisingly enough, the kids really like it," he added as the music switched to Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus. "It gives a calming feeling to the hallways.

"When you see the students moving around between lessons it's completely different to how it was.

"As well as the music, every member of staff comes out and we all stand with high-vis jackets on so students know exactly where we are.

"It has sped everything up. Lessons start on time and pupils don't miss any learning which is really important.

"The philosophy we have is every minute counts, so we really make sure we reduce those minutes that are missed."

The head teacher's taste in music is far from the only change pupils were met with when they arrived back at school earlier this month. Gone are the uniforms, replaced with Harris' preferred blazer, jumper and tie combination.

It has also dropped the school's language and arts specialism to focus on maths. Pupils now have to stay an hour longer on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for extra lessons in the core subjects.

They will also be tested six times a year instead of four to improve the use of data and produce reports for parents at the end of every half-term.

The measures, used to varying degrees at Harris' three other secondary schools in Croydon, have been brought in to reverse a slump in GCSE results – the lowest in the borough two years in a row – and an Ofsted report which placed Westwood in special measures last year.

Mr Everitt attributes the slump to weak leadership. Before he was appointed in April, Westwood had a series of interim leaders after its last substantive head, Karen Benton, went on long-term sick leave.

He makes no apology for his tough new approach.

"I expect my staff to work very hard and for everyone, from the teachers to the dinner ladies, to take responsibility," he said.

"If we pull together we will achieve. If we pull in different angles, well, you've seen the stuff from last year. Thankfully the school is a different place."

That "stuff" was a dispute between Mr Everitt, supported by the governing body, and a number of teachers who objected to their lessons being monitored more than three times a year.

Negotiations between the two sides proved fruitless and staff, backed by two unions, staged three separate days of strike action in the middle of the pupils' GCSEs.

"I haven't experienced anything like last year," said Mr Everitt when asked whether any ill-feeling remained.

That may be because more than half of the school's teachers left over the summer.

"I made my vision clear," he said, when asked why so many had chosen to leave.

"I have been absolutely explicit that all teaching in this academy has to be good or better. Our students deserve that."

The 12 staff who chose to stay, and the two dozen who arrived in the summer, should not expect Mr Everitt's attitude toward lesson observations to soften.

"I am more than happy to negotiate with the union reps, but I think it is fair to say I do have non-negotiables," he said.

When asked whether teachers should expect to be monitored more than three times, Mr Everitt said: "Yes. I have been up front with staff right from the beginning. It's like any job. People are accountable for how they perform.

"If monitoring and evaluation improves teaching then there should be no issue with it, no matter how many times it is."

As Westwood no longer exists, the academy is not judged to be in 'special measures'. As a new academy it will be visited by Ofsted but not face a full inspection this academic year.

Even so, Mr Everitt says he has set every area of the school "massively aspirational" targets.

These include at least 55 per cent of Year 11 hitting the Government's GCSE target next summer.

"Staff are tired, of course they are," he said.

"It has been a really intense few weeks and rightly so. We've got to get it right. The first 100 days are absolutely crucial."

"The music is really soothing"

PUPILS have had a lot to take in over the last few weeks but say they have already noticed improvements from "chaotic" Westwood. "There's a big difference in the students' behaviour in class," said Claudette Johnson, 15. "There's less distraction. People are more willing to get on with their work so we have more time to actually learn instead of stopping to deal with bad behaviour in lessons. "I don't know why, but everyone's attitude has changed towards school. People are a lot more serious." Shennel Kotadia, 15, said: "I think the uniform does get us into the mode of education and being focused. It definitely plays a part. "When I first saw it, I didn't like it that much but when I put it on I preferred it. I like the tie. "It makes me feel I am going to school and I am there to learn." Samantha Murfett, 12, believes the use of classical music has made moving between lessons less hectic. "It's really soothing and I'm more calm walking around the school – though it might be because we know every teacher is looking at us," she said. "Every single teacher is on the look out, which definitely makes you move faster to lessons." Claudette added: "It's more controlled instead of the chaos we had last year. "My parents prefer it like this because it's stricter but a more comfortable environment to work in as well. We're learning and have fun at the same time."Mixed plans HARRIS Academy Upper Norwood will accept boys for the first time from next September. "The reason for making the change is that Westwood is under-subscribed," said Mr Everitt. The all-girl school received just 70 applications for 180 places in the new Year 7 intake. "Going co-educational will help ensure there are more applications from local families," said Mr Everitt. "This is important because only once every place is taken will the school receive its full funding from the Government." to pay for teachers and other resources." Mr Everitt said teachers would receive extra training to prepare for mixed classes next year. The school is to invest in boys' toilets and changing rooms.

Bach to school: Classical music used to improve Croydon's worst secondary

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