A school with a heart
Corfe Hills School is forty years old this year. Andrew Headley has been to visit.
Published in November ’16
Corfe Hills School takes its name from the eminence on which it stands, the highest point in the Borough of Poole at some 250 feet above sea level. Its geographical position is symbolic of the school’s aim of helping its pupils to reach as high as they can: aspiration is one of its stated core values, along with independence, respect and community. As it celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year (notably with its carol service on 13 December at the school), how successfully is it continuing to instil these values in its 1400 or so students? Another way of phrasing that question is: what makes Corfe Hills different from other schools? Acting Headteacher Phil Keen’s answer is ‘It’s a school with a heart.’ He is presumably not implying that other schools lack heart, but acknowledging that Corfe Hills is notable for strong and productive relationships between all the different elements of the school community.
An important factor in establishing those relationships is the school’s very active extra-curricular programme. To a degree not often found in a state school, a Corfe Hills pupil is likely to find an interest outside the classroom that will appeal to him or her. With 80 full-time staff, there is expertise in all sorts of areas, and the regular ski-trip, a combined rugby and hockey tour to South Africa last summer, the annual show at Lighthouse (this year, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and a trip to do charity work in Tanzania are only the high-profile representatives of a wide range of activities.
To run such a programme places demands on teachers that might be considered above and beyond the call of duty, but one of the school’s strengths is the culture that exists among staff that putting in the extra effort goes with the job. The example this attitude sets to the students is a lesson in itself, while the activities themselves are invaluable for developing the ‘soft’ skills – teamwork, punctuality, communication, adaptability, for example – that are so greatly valued by today’s employers.
More direct preparation for the world of work is represented by a strong work experience programme for year 10. Each student in that year carries out a two-week placement, and it is not surprising to learn that the organisation of the programme is almost a full-time job! The year 12 students also do work experience, the difference being that they have to arrange it themselves, which is part of the learning experience. Enterprise is encouraged, and some sixth-formers have already set up their own companies.
A number of the extra-curricular activities are organised by the students themselves, which adds to those soft skills a sense of personal responsibility for the outcome. This year Corfe Hills came third in the south-west regional finals of the Rock Challenge, a performing arts competition between schools from all over the country. Teachers may have kept an eye on progress from a distance and been available for discreet advice, but the eight-minute routine was created and choreographed, as well as performed, entirely by the students.
Such activities are invaluable in developing the individuality which is an essential element in two more of the school’s core values, independence and respect. Everyone at Corfe Hills is valued as an individual; for example, there is a strong ‘gifted and talented’ programme, and also a busy Learning Support Department, but students learn (to quote the official policy) ‘To respect values and differences between people so that individuals understand and accept their responsibility for mutual well being within the school community and the wider community.’
Of course there are times when things go wrong, and each year has a dedicated pastoral support worker to be available to students and to liaise with parents where necessary. The head of year is called its learning leader, and class teachers have become mentors. The latter change in title is significant because it reflects the importance of the 40 minutes or so that a class will spend with their mentor most mornings. At least some of that time will be spent on general life-skills – older students might be given advice on budgeting their money, for example – and the work the mentors do is backed up by regular assemblies which are non-religious but which are themed very much on values and aspirations.
Extra-curricular activities, first-class pastoral care and instilling desirable values are all very well, but as a wise headmaster said, if everything is going well in the classroom, the school is doing well and if not, it’s not. How does Corfe Hills measure up to that test? Not at all badly is the answer. Their results put them somewhere around the middle of the league table of state schools in Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth, but in looking at the figures, a crucial point to be borne in mind is that Poole and Parkstone Grammar Schools take a disproportionate number of their pupils from Corfe Hills’ catchment area of Broadstone and Corfe Mullen. Thus the majority of the school’s most talented potential pupils are skimmed off like the academic cream from a bottle of milk, although some parents of brighter students still use Corfe Hills in preference to the grammar schools because of the scope of creative arts subjects on offer or access to wider sports opportunities or because they prefer a co-educational school. As Acting Headteacher Phil Keen says, ‘We recognise the different types of schools in Poole and are proud of the distinctive ethos of Corfe Hills.’
The academic tone is partly set by the Sixth Form which, as in so many schools now, is almost a separate institution. They are treated much more as adults: they are obliged to wear smart clothes, but not uniform, they have their own café and they are trusted and expected to work much more on their own than was the case before GCSE. Some 35 subjects are on offer, and class sizes are typically 18-20. A level is still the most popular option, but there are applied courses in subjects like science, health and social care and sport which gain a BTEC or the equivalent; interestingly, universities are looking with more and more favour on such qualifications because they are evidence of a practical streak to go alongside academic achievement.
You don’t just walk into the Sixth Form at Corfe Hills; the minimum requirement is five GCSEs at grade A* to C, including English Language. About 60% of students from year 11 stay on, and a further twenty or so join year 12 from other schools. These include up to six international students each year, who manfully overcome the language barrier as well as tackling the curriculum. There is a good record of getting students to where they want to go, with Southampton, Exeter, Bournemouth, Bristol and Warwick Universities among the destinations of 2016’s leavers.
The two main feeder schools to Corfe Hills are Broadstone Middle and Lockyers Middle, so pupils usually join in year 9. Both Broadstone and Corfe Mullen are comparatively affluent, middle-class areas with parents who are more likely on average to take an interest in their children’s education, to be well-motivated and to pass that motivation on to their children. It is tempting to say that running a school in such an area is easy, but that has only a grain of truth: there are still a lot of students who do not have that high level of parental support, and there is still the challenge of aiming for every student, from whatever background, to achieve his or her potential and to leave with a sense of responsibility to the community. Corfe Hills is doing a good job of meeting that challenge.