East Enders rise to the challenge

In 2000, the schools in east London were failing. Now they are among some of the most effective in the country. Steve McCormack looks at why Tower Hamlets is suddenly doing so well
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Reputations can be misleading. Ask most people what they know about the east London borough of Tower Hamlets and they'll probably have a mixed bag of negative images. Poverty, deprivation and unemployment will feature, and many will link this to the high concentrations of ethnic minorities.

Reputations can be misleading. Ask most people what they know about the east London borough of Tower Hamlets and they'll probably have a mixed bag of negative images. Poverty, deprivation and unemployment will feature, and many will link this to the high concentrations of ethnic minorities.

And they'd be right. Or rather half right. What they might be unaware of is that Tower Hamlets is one of the nation's success stories. League tables based on last year's secondary school exam results show several of the borough's comprehensive schools jockeying for position at the top, particularly when you take account of the new "value-added" factor that measures what the schools do with the children they have.

One school, Sir John Cass, is even top of two lists, for the value it adds between the ages of 14 and 16, and for being the most improved school for 11-to 16-year-olds. In the former category, four Tower Hamlets comprehensives find themselves in the top 13 state schools across the whole of England. That has to be more than a coincidence. Something must be working in this East End borough.

After Ofsted inspected Oaklands School in Bethnal Green, in the heart of the old East End, just before Christmas it produced a glowing report, sprinkling around the word "excellent" with a frequency that is rare from this stickler for educational standards. Significantly, the report commended the school for having a true comprehensive intake. Oaklands' 600 pupils reflect the borough's ethnic mix: 60 per cent Bengali, 20 per cent other minorities and 20 per cent white. The pupils also represent a wide ability range.

Squeezed between high density and high-rise housing, the school lives cheek by jowl with the community, which is an advantage and a challenge. Because so many pupils live so near, it makes it easy for them to stay on for after-school activities, something that is important, says the head teacher, Jo Dibb. "Two hours after the end of school, on many days, there'll still be 100 kids here, at homework clubs, in the library or using the computers," she says. "It gives the school great energy."

The challenge, though, is to prevent the culture of the street becoming the culture of the school, says Ms Dibb. "When I first came here, there were kids in corridors wearing baseball hats and talking on mobile phones. We don't allow that now. It sounds trivial, but if you don't do that, you won't be able to build on other things."

The other thing is to establish a culture of learning. "Once they step across the threshold here, it's Oaklands values that count," she explains. "The ethos is about finding ways so that everybody can learn and succeed. It's about raising aspirations and building self esteem."

This couldn't have happened without good and committed teachers. Oaklands seems to have escaped the recruitment and retention difficulties that can stop improvement in its tracks and have sent other schools into a spiral of decline. "We can pay extra for teachers to cover after-school activities," says the head. "We were ahead of the game on teachers' workload. Our staff have a low teaching load and, for a long time now, we've relieved form tutors from tasks like collecting money."

Oaklands is part of a unique borough-wide scheme, where the heads of the maths, English and science departments at all secondary schools are free from teaching at the same time every week, so that they can get together in subject groups to swap ideas and help each other. David Reynolds, Professor of School Improvement at Exeter University, sees this as important.

"This is a neat and sophisticated idea, because the head of department is such a key position in a school," he says. "Enabling communication at this level across a borough can be very fruitful."

Another part of the jigsaw is the link the school has with the global investment bank, Lehmann Brothers, whose offices in Canary Wharf tower look down on the frayed urban landscape around Oaklands. Lehmann provides funds for several initiatives. On the day of my visit, a group of its executives were in the library, giving hands-on help to individual students with science work. On occasional Saturdays, they lay on, in their Canary Wharf offices, a day of intensive revision for pupils approaching GCSE, an experience that takes children out of their daily environment into one that can only engender aspiration and ambition.

But the Oaklands improvement is by no means unique. In 2000, 27 Tower Hamlets schools, about a quarter of the total in the borough, were classified by Ofsted as having serious weaknesses or, even worse, put into special measures. Now, there are only five, and none of them is a secondary school. It's an improvement the Labour-run council trumpets at every opportunity, and which illustrates the priority given to education at the town hall. Squabbles seen elsewhere about how much Whitehall money is passed on to schools would be inconceivable here, according to Luftur Rahman, who holds the education brief on the Council's ruling Cabinet.

"We don't just pass on the recommended amount to schools," he says. "We do even more. Last year it was 107 per cent. There is an absolute commitment to education. It is the backbone of our administration. The only way we can help all our citizens is if we get education right."

Councillor Rahman came to Tower Hamlets at age four from his native Bangladesh, attended state schools in the borough and went on to qualify as a solicitor. The majority of councillors have similar roots. "We are an integral part of society here, embedded in the community," he says. "Our life and our future are here. And the only way to get on is through education."

Stephen Grix, the director of education, agrees that this unqualified political commitment contributes to Tower Hamlets' rise up the rankings. Others include appointing strong head teachers and keeping them for longer than the average, trying to spread good practice across the borough and setting what he calls aspirational targets.

How pupils do in primary school is crucial, Tower Hamlets believes. That means concentrating on the literacy hour and the numeracy strategy. "We are focused on literacy and numeracy and have said we are really going for these strategies across the borough, says Grix. "With a population where so many kids don't speak English before they come to school and where there's a very low ownership of PCs, we have to concentrate from the outset on these basic objectives."

The weight given to reading and arithmetic and teaching helpful behaviour habits at an early age is clear at Columbia Primary School, on the northern edge of the borough. From the outside, it's an archetypal red brick Victorian institution, with separate entrances for boys and girls. But, through the doors, a happy environment opens up.

In a third-floor room, a Year 4 class of eight-and nine-year-olds were starting their morning literacy hour. They were picking out information from a text, looking at a paragraph about the Celts in Britain, and identifying words about time, place and personalities. Just as important was the guidance the teacher was giving on life skills.

Columbia's head, Penny Bentley, has presided over a steady increase in Key Stage 2 results in maths, English and science, in a school where 80 per cent of the children have English as their second language. The latest scores were 72, 84 and 96 per cent respectively.

The Bangladeshi children, she says, come to school in the right frame of mind and showing great respect for their teachers. "Despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that many of the parents and grandparents had no formal education in Bangladesh, they put a very high value on it here. And you can't say that about some white working-class families."

But she also puts equal value, and tries to measure, advances in behaviour. "We put great emphasis on emotional literacy. We try to teach pupils to build good quality relationships. We watch how they relate to each other and we keep a record of the number of quarrels in the playground."

An innovation supporting this thrust is the appointment, among the top year of the school, of Friendship Squad members, whose role is to "police" the playground, by sorting out arguments between younger children and keep an eye out for pupils who are sad or lonely.

This highlights a theme emphasised in Tower Hamlets: social and behaviour issues are as important as what's taught in the classroom. If the atmosphere is right and there's a respect for the learning, success will probably follow.

It has lifted educational achievement in the area from woeful depths a decade ago, and made people take note in staff rooms and council chambers a long way away from the East End.