School rises from the ashes after devastating fire

Hatfield Visual Arts College, which was last month named among the top five most improved specialist schools in the country, is full of life - six years after arsonists turned almost half of it to ashes. Reporter Paul Goodwin meets the hands-on headteacher who has overseen the transformation.

CHRIS Coady is a very different breed of headteacher...

Approachable, jovial and often radical in his approach, the North East-born leader has not held back in his revolutionary re-brand of the previously under-performing high school.

With a smart new uniform, the abandonment of age-related learning and a rewards shop which credits good behaviour and notable achievements with items such as MP3 players and manicure sets, change has definitely been for the better at the 1200-pupil comprehensive.

After securing specialist school status in 2003, just two years after an arson attack which caused 1 million worth of damage to the Ash Hill siteand left pupils learning in a "shanty town,"Hatfield Visual Arts College last month made it into the top five most improved specialist schools in the country, as well as the top five most improved schools in Yorkshire - accolades based on a GCSE pass rate which has more than doubled over the last two years.

"It's about having the right staff in the right places and good leadership at every level within the college and having a governing body which challenge us and support us.

"It's about young people and their parents actually wanting to succeed and having accessible learning and the right curriculum with things that young people can succeed in.

"We're looking at giving the kids skills, knowledge and understanding which is going to improve their lifetime chances," said Mr Coady.

A brand new 4.5 million arts and maths Da Vinci Learning Centre, which officially opened in January last year, has completely altered the look of the school. But the changes have been far greater than cosmetic.

Pupils now begin their GCSE or Btec studies in Year Nine. Every student is kept on-site at lunchtime and last month a "super-learning week" gave youngsters the chance to dedicate a whole day to single subjects - it is a school philosophy clearly based on engagement and respect.

"I personally fell very humbled about the things we've achieved here and I think it's a credit to a pretty inspired bunch of staff," said Mr Coady. "They're all highly motivated people who want to make a difference to young people's lives.

"When I came here this was one of the worst 600 schools in the country, now on inspection and performance we're in the top 25 per cent of schools nationally.

"We were inspected 12 months ago and it was Ofsted 'good'. I think, given where we started, that is a significant accolade."

The number of youngsters at Hatfield gaining five or more A*-C GCSE grades, the national benchmark, more than doubled to 61 per cent in 2006, and rose again to 66 per cent last year.