Language and poverty is no barrier to achieving excellence

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The Independent Online

Named after a crusader against slavery in 19th century North Carolina who used his rudimentary education to emancipate and teach his own children, the Thomas Jones primary school isn't short of historical inspiration for its pupils.

Despite being situated in what is otherwise one of the capital's richest boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea, the school serves a deprived inner city area and two-thirds of its pupils speak English as a second language.

Yet despite just one of the 31 pupils sitting tests in maths and English at the age of 11 coming from an indigenous English speaking background – with more than half of them also living below the poverty line – it boasts a 100 per cent success rate in the exams.

It has often topped league tables over the past five years. The standard of reading among its pupils far outweighs that of many schools in with more affluent and mostly white English intakes.

So what's the secret of the 230-pupil primary school – with students from as far afield as Palestine, Ecuador, Somalia, Kosovo, Serbia and Mongolia – judged "outstanding" by education standards watchdog Ofsted in every aspect of education that it delivers?

Headteacher David Sellens, who admits he is "incredibly fussy about a lot of things," says encouraging a simple sense of pride among the students in their surroundings, as well as breeding some social confidence, may be part of the reason.

Some may question what difference these factors can make to a child's exam performance – kids with the smartest minds are not always the smartest dressed, after all. But in its report, Ofsted even notes how a quick change of uniform encourages pupils to take their lessons seriously.

Praising the school's high aspirations, it says: "An example of this is when the year six pupils (10 and 11-year-olds) don white coats for science lessons and eagerly respond to the school's expectation that they are preparing for university."

Perhaps it should be no surprise that, even before the age of 11, some children are talking about going to university, says Mr Sellens.

He also insists that the school's recruitment policy has helped. Most of its teachers are recruited from university and stay for a few years before moving on, but while they are there, the energy and drive they bring to lessons is obvious.

"Some of them are very talented, they are enthusiastic and idealistic," he said. "The teachers who come are attracted to this kind of school. They want to teach in this type of environment – even if sometimes they don't stop for long."

Perhaps most important, Mr Sellens believes, is the fact that most of the children start in the nursery school at the age of three and get a good early grounding in the basics – the key to laying down the building blocks for their later achievement.

"It is a very important starting point for families – particularly families for whom English is not their first language and where they're living in challenging situations."

Putting the hours in as they grow older helps too, of course. "We're also big on homework – pupils can do up to two hours a night," says Mr Sellens. "Everything is connected and nothing is taken for granted here."

Overall, Ofsted says the school "lives up extremely well to the reputation of its namesake who always strove for equal opportunities and who had their highest aspirations for his own children".