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'Pupils are willing and parents are supportive' Education Editor Gareth Evans described last year's inspection report into Eastern High School in Cardiff, as the worst he'd ever seen. But has it improved? He was invited back to chart progress.

IT had some of the worst GCSE results in Wales last year and there was a suggestion it could close if standards didn't improve.

But the fact Eastern High School's head teacher has invited me back in for a look speaks volumes - if there was anything to hide, a journalist would be the last person you'd want snooping around.

Contrary to some of the horror stories that have been going around, Eastern appears - on the face of it - a fully functioning school.

True, the buildings are tired and in desperate need of an upgrade (a new school is due to open, somewhat belatedly, in September 2017), but there is nothing you wouldn't expect of a big city secondary.

There is commotion between lessons; the odd pupil running late into class; and one or two standing nervously in the corridor while their teachers decide what to do with them. But there is no chaos and nothing visible to suggest that Eastern is languishing in 'special measures', the inspectorate's highest form of support and monitoring.

Armando Di-Finizio, who was parachuted in to lead the Rumney school on a temporary basis in December 2014, said Eastern was now a very different place to what it was a year ago.

"The school's much happier - it feels like a normal school with normal problems," he said.

"The pupils are willing and the parents are supportive - they've seen a difference and we've had lots of positive feedback from primary school heads in terms of what parents are saying in the community."

But shaking Eastern's bad reputation is tough when results remain so far below expectations.

Just 14.9% of teenagers at Eastern gained five GCSE passes at grades A*-C including English or Welsh and maths (Level 2+) last summer - down from 22.4% in 2014.

The poor results were a stark reminder of the challenge in hand for Mr Di-Finizio, who had targeted improved GCSE scores in 2015.

"We were going on teacher predictions," said Mr Di-Finizio, who has overhauled the way staff assess pupils.

"I was working three days a week until Easter and I didn't have any senior team - there just wasn't the time.

"But I'm much more confident we'll improve a lot this year."

Mr Di-Finizio said 33% of pupils have already secured a grade C or above in their maths GCSE, which is the school's highest ever proportion. "We have hard evidence now that the school is improving," he said.

"Attendance figures are the highest they've ever been - we were 84% last year and we're now at 89% - and we haven't had one fixed-term exclusion this term."

But while the picture is improving, Eastern is starting from a very low base and it's a year this week since education watchdog Estyn rated all aspects of the school's provision "unsatisfactory".

The inspectorate has made several monitoring visits since and is next due at the school later this month.

"They've seen a better picture every time - and they'll see it again," said Mr Di-Finizio.

Eastern's substandard quality of teaching was a major issue for inspectors, though Mr Di-Finizio is confident improvements have been made.

Seven teachers have left Eastern, which has around 800 pupils on roll, since his arrival and all staff take part in a weekly training session after school.

According to Mr Di-Finizio, there are five "non-negotiables" - including greeting pupils on their arrival and not standing still at the front of the class during lessons - to which every teacher must adhere.

"It creates a bit of consistency and the pupils then know what to expect," he said. "It provides a solid base from which teachers can teach and pupils can learn."

There is a new focus on literacy, without which pupils struggle to access the curriculum, and Eastern has appointed a 'literacy champion' to help raise standards across the school.

A 'road map' has been drawn outlining the school's future development and the head teacher said Estyn had been impressed by its strategic improvement plan.

Structural changes have seen the school split into four 'colleges',' made up of pupils from different age groups, and staff have a much better understanding of learner data.

There are new safeguarding and child protection plans in place and a PS1m investment in school facilities, including simple things like painting walls blue rather than black, have given Eastern a more welcoming feel.

Mr Di-Finizio's contract expires when the school moves into its new building next year, but he has grown so attached to his new surroundings that he will be applying to extend his stay in the Welsh capital.

"I'd like to stay a little bit longer now," he said.

"I'm enjoying myself and the new school is really exciting. The building will make a difference in terms of the environment - but you can't rest on your laurels.

"Pupils quickly become accustomed to a new building and unless you have systems and structures in place, all the old habits come back."

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Eastern High School, Rumney

Acting head teacher Armando Di-Finizio at Eastern High School in Cardiff
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 2, 2016
Words:842
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