'Awful school' awaits the Iron Lady: Esther Oxford meets a head taking her skills northwards after turning round one of Tower Hamlets' worst schools

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St Paul's Way School in Tower Hamlets is like a fortress. It is huge, blockish, intimidating. Around it camp-like fencing keeps unwanted visitors out.

Vivien Cutler, the headmistress, had it put up four years ago to protect pupils. When she arrived in 1988 only 22 per cent were girls. Most were too intimidated to step into what had become one of the area's worst schools.

Now there are waiting lists. Almost 50 per cent of the children are female. Two Bengali girls have been awarded places at Oxbridge. The rest achieve examination results far beyond common expectations.

Highbury Grove is Ms Cutler's next challenge. She starts there this week. The school has been the subject of much scrutiny - a 1992 HMI report concluded that 30 per cent of lessons were 'unsatisfactory and that behaviour was the worst seen at a school (stones were thrown at teachers, fires started and pounds 21,500 had to be spent mending windows).

All eyes will be upon her but Ms Cutler does not appear perturbed: 'There will be a degree of apprehension - people always find change unsettling. But I think most people are looking forward to a period of stability. I feel I've been very warmly welcomed by the school.

Local newspapers have dubbed Ms Cutler, 44, the Iron Lady. A tough

new code of conduct is expected, according to one report: lateness, poor discipline, time-off and rushed homework will not be tolerated. Highbury Grove can expect a 'big shake-up.

But Ms Cutler has only one objective in mind: 'I want to empower local communities by maximising

children's achievements. Highbury Grove, she says, has fantastic potential: the facilities are good, the parents are supportive and there is tremendous scope for change.

Her first priority will be to raise the expectations of the boys: 'There are more women in registered employment than there are men. This is a problem which needs to be addressed, Ms Cutler says.

Dedicated, imaginative teachers are essential, she believes. They have to trust that the children can achieve. Instead of pitching lessons at a middle to low level they must aim high.

One scheme she particularly admires is a Tower Hamlets' initiative to take groups of students to Exeter University, so giving them an added incentive to continue learning. It is also important for the pupils to know their teachers believe in them.

Highbury Grove's previous headmaster, Peter Searle, had different priorities. He preferred 'social justice to weighty exam results. Instead of maintaining the 'public-school system for working-class boys adopted by his predecessor, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Mr Searle set up a more liberal regime: boys were taught how to set up a school council or open bank accounts.

Mr Searle was eventually dismissed after a hard-fought battle. But Ms Cutler refuses to decry his achievements. A 1981 HMI report - supposedly the hey-day of Sir Rhodes' regime - had been 'far from satisfactory, she said. She has plans to continue Mr Searle's emphasis on 'social justice by stretching pupils to their full ability as well as teaching them to be responsible, caring individuals.

Ms Cutler's achievements are evidence enough that she means what she says. Once a school 'where pupils came to socialise rather than learn, where examinations were 'almost peripheral and management 'haphazard (all Ms Cutler's words), St Paul's Way is now one of the most popular schools in Tower Hamlets. Exam results are among the best in the borough; there is an 80 per cent turnout at parents' evenings (compared with

1 per cent when she started); the school population has increased from 600 to 1,000 and in some classes there is a waiting list.

One of Ms Cutler's most impressive achievements is the high rate of attendance from girls - particularly Muslims. 'When I started in 1988 it was a terrifying place. We founded a gender-equality staff member to elicit what the girls wanted - it was essential to create a user-friendly environment. A big issue was security. Gangs of 30 to 40 young men had taken to waiting outside the gates. Pupils felt unsafe - there had been some pretty nasty episodes with knives. So we erected some fencing and set up more lunch-time clubs, self-defence for the girls, also for the boys if they wanted it.

'A room was set aside for girls at break-time. A discreet play-area was found where they could play basket-ball at lunch without coming into contact with boys. Single-sex lessons were also set up in maths, science and PE. Bit by bit the girls started coming in.

There are still problems - children find themselves withdrawn from exams by parents anxious to take a trip abroad; language difficulties (85 per cent are bilingual) slow the pace of learning . But generally children leave confident that they have achieved their best . The array of cards and messages from grateful pupils are testimony to the school's achievements.

'I still haven't achieved my vision, Ms Cutler says. 'But six years is time enough - I need a different challenge.

Highbury Grove will suffice.

(Photograph omitted)

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