From fail to world’s best: A lesson from the East End

What can we learn from the remarkable 15-year turnaround at Tower Hamlets’ schools?

Fifteen years ago, the schools in Tower Hamlets were derided as the worst performing in the country. Things were so bad that Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, insisted that its damning report on them should be  presented in full to every councillor in the east London borough to underline  how much they were failing local children.

But from today, the history books need a new chapter: a report on education in Tower Hamlets has reached the conclusion that it has some of the best modern urban schools in the world. It is a remarkable achievement for what is one of the poorest boroughs in England, where 57 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals and 89 per cent speak English as a second language.

National curriculum test results have shown its schools now post above-average grades for the UK in reading and writing, even outperforming wealthy Kent in English tests for 11-year-olds. It was not always so.

In 1997, the borough came last out of 149 English education authorities in terms of performance. An earlier Ofsted report described reading standards as poor and the quality of teaching often unsatisfactory. The following year, Chris Woodhead, Chief Schools Inspector at the time, was so angered by the standards that he insisted Ofsted’s work should be put in front of all councillors.

Since then, the authority has moved to a position where all 15 of its secondary schools are ranked good or outstanding. Its primary schools are also excelling, with no school below the 2012 floor standard of 60 per cent of pupils achieving the required ability in maths and English.

One of its biggest success stories is the 672-pupil Manorfield Primary School, which went from failing to outstanding in Ofsted’s eyes in the space of just over a year – one of the four quickest turnarounds seen by inspectors in the watchdog’s history.

The school’s newly appointed headteacher, Wendy Hick, began involving parents in their children’s education and set ambitious targets for the pupils’ performance.

The report, by a triumvirate of academics – Professor David Woods, a former senior government adviser, Professor Chris Husbands, director of the University of London’s Institute of Education, and Dr Chris Brown, a researcher at the same institute – says Tower Hamlets’ transformation is “a genuinely exceptional achievement, worth celebrating, worth understanding, but above all worth learning from”.

It adds that one of the authority’s proudest boasts is that it achieved the turnaround before any of its schools became academies – showing standards can be improved by local education authorities on their own. One of the ways it sought to improve performance is by reducing truancy and unauthorised absence. Attendance is now above the average for London.

One of the methods it used was to hold discussions with the borough’s imams and persuade them to press Muslim families not to take their children out of school for holidays during term time – a move has had a considerable effect in reducing absence.

In addition, the borough set key goals for all schools, giving all pupils targets to hit. With the help of high levels of funding – the borough gains significantly more resources under the Government’s pupil premium to help teach disadvantaged pupils because of the large number of children entitled to free school meals – it has been able to entice quality headteachers and other staff to run its schools. It also placed a strong focus on literacy in every primary school.

Remarkably, none of the teachers observed in recent Ofsted reports in the borough has been rated as “inadequate”, while the majority were either good or outstanding. The report cites the fact that the council resisted “politically motivated pressure to build new high school academies”, believing it had the ability to transform its schools on its own.

“The experience of Tower Hamlets since 1998 [when Ofsted produced its report] is inspirational,” it concludes. “It shows that improvement is not only possible but achievable, that improvement in some schools does not need to be bought at the expense of others and that improvement, once attained, can not only be sustained but surpassed.

“As a result, it is not unreasonable to argue that what Tower Hamlets has created are some of the best urban schools in the world.”

Key to the success story, the report argues, was the appointment of two energetic heads of its education service – Christine Gilbert, who went on to become Chief Schools Inspector, and Kevan Collins, a former senior adviser at the Department for Education.

Ironically, Collins reckons the election of a BNP councillor to represent the borough in 1994 my have unwittingly been a catalyst for transformation. He said it has acted as “a dynamic for political cohesion, drawing Bengali councillors into politics in the following election when the BNP was defeated – and drawing in councillors with strong ambitions for education”.

Oliur Rahman, the council’s cabinet member for children, schools and families, said in response to the report: “Education is a top priority of this administration and, as the report points out, we refuse to accept that poverty should hold back our young people from fulfilling their potential.”

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
newsJohn Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
News
i100
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
News
Bey can do it: Beyoncé re-enacts Rosie the Riveter's pose
newsRosie the Riveter started out as an American wartime poster girl and has become a feminist pin-up. With Beyoncé channeling her look, Gillian Orr tells her story
Life and Style
Donna and Paul Wheatley at their wedding
healthShould emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

KS1 Primary Teacher Supply Halifax

£130 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Are you an inspirational, ent...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Maths Teacher required for ...

Lower Key Stage 2 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education and recruitin...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Group: Being the UK market leader, Ran...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit