A tale of two state schools

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, would rather beg than let his children go to his local comprehensive in south London. But there's another one in his Dorset constituency to which he would at least 'consider' sending them. Is he right to make such a distinction - or merely prejudiced? We sent two writers to report from Lilian Baylis School and Beaminster School
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The Independent Online

Lilian Baylis School, Kennington, London SE11

* 600 pupils; 28 full-time and 15 part-time teaching staff.

* 15 per cent of pupils are of white UK heritage; the remainder are mainly Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Chinese.

* 63 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

* 25 per cent of pupils have special educational needs.

* English is not the first language of nearly half the pupils; one pupil in 10 is still in the early stages of learning English.

* 12 per cent of pupils are on the child protection register.

* 17 per cent of pupils achieved 5 good GCSE grades (C or above).

* The truancy rate is 7 per cent.

* The unemployment rate in Lambeth 9.6 per cent.

It's 3pm and students at Lilian Baylis comprehensive school in Lambeth are streaming out of the school gate. Wearing smart black uniforms, boisterous teenagers spill on to a south London street just five minute's walk from Oliver Letwin's £800,000 home. Buses thunder past towards Westminster, while pedestrians jostle through a haze of traffic fumes. From the playground you can see the flag fluttering over the House of Commons, but opposite the school a terrace of houses stands derelict and boarded-up against squatters.

This is the school about which Mr Letwin declared that he would rather beg on the streets than allow his children to become pupils there.

Lilian Baylis School - named after the founder of Sadler's Wells - may not boast the ancient courtyards of Eton, where Mr Letwin was a pupil, but its angular concrete and glass buildings were actually awarded listed building status as a prime example of early 1970s architecture. They have seen better days (the strip lighting and lino floors look dated), and there is little outdoor space for play, but inside the school is warm and welcoming, there is no obvious litter or graffiti and the classroom walls are festooned with bright displays.

Its students appear to be bright, confident, good humoured and articulate young people. But they are still fuming at the insult to their school ­ which comes at a crucial time for the improving comprehensive. The morning after Mr Letwin's remarks the school held special lessons for pupils to discuss what had happened.

Gary Phillips, 39, the headteacher since 2001, is a fierce and energetic chamption of his students' achievements. He is the product of a inner city comprehensive himself, and is angered by those who run down schools like his without ever visiting them. "The students were extremely upset and indignant," he said. "But as a school we discussed what we could do about it. As a citizen if a politician says something you do not agree with you should write and tell them. We have been trying to turn this to our advantage by interesting young people in politics and showing them how they can have a voice."

He believes that children who attend inner city comprehensives can emerge better equipped for life than students who receive an ostensibly more privileged education. "I am a parent myself and I want my children to go to school in their local community, to get to know people and to contribute to that society. If you believe in inclusion, as I do, then you have to believe that everyone should be educated together. If you don't mind having a community in the future that is splintered, one of the easiest ways to achieve that is to educate people separately."

Fifteen-year-old Marianne Looby was one of the many pupils who immediately fired off a furious letter to Mr Letwin demanding that he retract his remarks. "I told him how irresponsible and degrading his comments were. I told him he should come and see for himself rather than talking about things he obviously knows nothing about. My brother and sister both went here and they got really good GCSE results. They were both furious about it too."

Her year-11 classmate Stecy Anguilet, 15, said that while Mr Letwin's criticisms might have been justified four years ago when he first joined the school, it had been transformed since then. "Maybe I would have agreed with Mr Letwin then, but there have been so many improvements that it definitely isn't true now," he said. "We live with this school everyday and we've seen the changes. He hasn't and frankly doesn't know what he's talking about."

Helen Glynn, the school's head of technology, who won advanced skills teacher status in recognition of her skills, argues that Mr Letwin's outburst may reveal the Tory politician's prejudices but says nothing about the school where she has taught for three years.

"I don't think he knows anything about this school," she said. "He has no idea how good the teaching and learning is here." But she admits that teaching at an inner city comprehensive is not for the faint-hearted. "I wanted to work here because I wanted a challenge. These are socially deprived children and they do not all have backgrounds that always support them in their learning."

Just 17 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSE passes this summer. Yet the school was also recently praised as one of the most rapidly improving in England after results rebounded from just six per cent last year. The school also ranked in the top five per cent nationally on a Government measure of the "value added" by teachers.

The school anticipates reaching 25 per cent next summer ­ compared to a national average of just over 50 per cent.

Truancy and absence levels have also improved, dropping from 14 per cent of lessons missed two years ago to seven per cent this year. Two years ago, 10 students were excluded every week for bad behaviour. This is now down to less than one a week ­ still high but a significant improvement.

Lilian Baylis School has had a troubled history. Problems at the comprehensive went unnoticed until an explosive 1994 Ofsted report branded more than half the lessons as unsatisfactory or poor. The staff then balloted to strike, saying they had lost confidence in the headteacher. Parents began removing their children, and the local authority started to use the school as a dumping ground for problem pupils.

It was one of 18 failing schools named and shamed by David Blunkett after his appointment as Secretary of State for Education in 1997. But the latest Ofsted report, in 2001, concluded that while it still had "serious weaknesses" there were "clear signs the situation is improving".

The school now receives three applications for each of its 120 places, with 15 per cent of pupils from middle class backgrounds. And it is about to undergo a transformation. It hopes to become a specialist technology college and will move to a new £23.2m complex, funded by a private finance initiative deal, in November 2004.

But Mr Letwin's comments could not have come at a worse time for the school, which is about to face an Ofsted inspection. Mr Phillips understands that he plans to make a private visit to the school. "He would be very welcome. and there are a great many young people here who are looking forward to discussing his remarks with him. They are a bunch of sharp minded young people and he will be a brave man if he does come to explain himself."

Beaminster School, Newtown, Beaminster, Dorset

*705 pupils, 48 teachers (and 33 support staff).

*"Few" pupils from ethnic minorities.

*Fewer than 9 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

* More than 21 per cent of students have been identified as having special educational needs.

* No pupils come from homes where English is not the first language.

* No children are on the child protection register.

* 65 per cent of students achieved A-C grades at GCSE last year.

* Unauthorised absence is less than 1 per cent.

* 12.5 per cent of the population of the Beaminster ward receive housing benefit or council tax benefit.

* The unemployment rate in Beaminster is 1 per cent.

The market town of Beaminster in Dorset is a picturesque place. Its older buildings are mostly constructed of mellow golden stone. The town's central square boasts tea shops and purveyors of posh knick-knackery. But Beaminster School doesn't quite live up to this genteel feeling. The school moved to its present site on a narrow lane leading up from the square in the early Sixties, and many of the original buildings haven't aged gracefully. In a county that can boast its share of smart public schools, Beaminster's architecture will never stand out.

But despite a certain peeling of the older fabric, there is a smart new science building, added in 1995, and a new sports hall will be built in the next few years. The grounds are outstanding: 30 acres of playing field and greenery, with fabulous views towards the wooded hills that encircle the town, give a feeling of light and air to the whole site. There is a notable absence of litter or (perish the thought) graffiti. You can see why Oliver Letwin - who presumably had this school in mind when he said that "children in west Dorset schools" had better educational chances than children in his part of Lambeth - might find it less horrifying than an inner-city comprehensive. But is he right?

Perhaps the most important thing about Beaminster School is that it retains something of the feel of the village school it once was. It's small for a comprehensive, with just over 700 boys and girls aged 11 to 18 on the roll this year. The atmosphere is friendly and cheerful, and everyone knows everyone else at least by sight, if not by name.

The headmaster, Mike Best, 49, joined the school three years ago. He chose Beaminster, he said, because of the close-knit feel of the area. "It was the community that attracted me," he said. The school has certainly always held a place close to the heart of Beaminster life. Back in the Seventies, to secure the construction of the swimming pool, a public-spirited local man mortgaged his own home. This is in keeping with the school's philanthropic origins. In 1685, a generous benefactor, Frances Tucker, left £20 a year to educate "twentie of the pooreste boyes of the parish". Her portrait hangs in Mr Best's study.

The modern, bustling school retains traditional elements, but with an up-to-date twist. Pupils wear a compulsory uniform, but it is a comfortable, hard-wearing, affordable polo shirt and sweatshirt combination. There is still a prefect system, but pupils have to apply for the posts - and be interviewed for them by the existing prefects. Pupils are divided into houses, but in typically unstuffy fashion, these are named after local landmarks.

Beaminster School has a very large catchment area - so much so that this year, the intake had to be increased from four classes to five. About 80 per cent of the pupils are bussed in from surrounding villages, which can lead to transport headaches - car-pooling parents rise to the challenge for the many extra-curricular activities. With 48 teachers, the school currently has a better-than-average staff-student ratio for Dorset. Beaminster achieved specialist technology status in 2001, and the extra funding for further development has been welcome, though feeling chronically on a shoestring budget is no less likely in a country setting than a town one. "No schools I'm aware of feel comfortable about funding," said Mr Best. "Our pupils perform well but they deserve better resources."

Nevertheless, in 2002, 65 per cent of Beaminster pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A-C (the national average is just over 51 per cent). About half the total intake go on to the sixth form, which is run jointly with Sir John Colfox school in nearby Bridport, to offer the widest possible choice of courses. About half of the sixth form then go on to university. The school has received a School Achievement Award for each of the past three years. It also has a "learning base" to support pupils with learning difficulties.

Amy Furness, 15, and Tina Fry, 16, both in year 11, feel that although Beaminster is comparatively small and rural, they don't hanker after a city setting. "I prefer being here," says Amy. "You wouldn't get as much help in a larger school."

"I feel there would be more bullying in a larger school," adds Tina. "There's a better atmosphere in a smaller school."

If there's an unavoidably institutional feel to the beige and pale green corridors, it's balanced by the fact that all the classrooms are immaculately clean and bright, and filled with the pupils' work.

While the school is strong on science, and the state-of-the-art science building opened in 1995 by David Bellamy is a definite source of pride, the arts are not neglected. The school production of The Tempest runs for three days next week, a labour of love for the head of drama, Valerie Goodwin, (her own play, The Magdalen Whitewash, is being performed on stage in Dublin and the United States). Mrs Goodwin, energetic in the extreme and clearly a cherished member of staff, invested in a consignment of raw liver to add authenticity to a recent production of the gory tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.

The 17th-century Frances Tucker would no doubt be amazed by the current sixth form common room, with its comfy sofas and loud music. The sixth-formers also enjoy their own "bistro" facility - far more dignified than joining the feeding frenzy in the main dining hall. On the menu last week was a hot lunch of beef lasagna, or broccoli and mushroom pasta bake with a hot pudding for £1.43, plus a selection of sandwiches, burgers and pizza, all fresh-smelling and appetising.

There is a wide mix of backgrounds at Beaminster, so no doubt a Letwin child would find a congenial place. Or, rather, there's a spread of all local backgrounds; there are no pupils who don't have English as their first language.

"Whenever I've talked to Oliver Letwin, I've found him a supporter of comprehensive education," said Mr Best of the recent contraversy. "He is a very active member of the community. When we've sought his support he's been very helpful." Mr Best believes the city-versus-country argument is not as straightforward as the cliché of pale urban urchins and rosy rural children. "There are definite pockets of deprivation here, but you don't see them so clearly because the place is so pretty. I think children are the same wherever they are."

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