Ofsted, which has provoked anger for its damning criticism of urban local authorities in Manchester, Hackney and Calderdale, called the London Borough of Newham a credit to the nation, even though seven of its schools are classed as failing and another 10 are deemed to have serious weaknesses.
Inspectors praise the Labour-run authority for its unwillingness to tolerate failure and for its "dynamic and imaginative professional leadership". They say: "It serves the country well in demonstrating, in common with a very small number of authorities inspected so far, that it is possible successfully to challenge the assumption that poverty and ethnic diversity must necessarily lead to failure at school."
The East End borough is one of Britain's most deprived areas. The figures tell it all. Nearly half of all children have free school meals. One in five comes from a single-parent household. Nearly two-thirds come from ethnic minorities and half speak English as their second language. The area, well to the east of London's Isle of Dogs, is one of run-down shopping streets, and lines of Victorian houses and tower blocks. The inspectors said: "Schools and children face problems of poor health, indifferent housing with poor or no facilities for study, frequent disturbances to schooling as parents move between rented houses and often little or no English when they enter school."
The borough's schools may be well below the national average on exam league tables, but they are described by Ofsted as being among the fastest improving in the country. Education officers say the seven failing schools will be turned around within 18 months. The percentage of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs has increased by 41 per cent in four years - from 23.8 per cent in 1995 to 33.7 last year. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching expected standards in English and maths has leapt by more than 35 per cent in the past three years. Both figures are now at national average levels. The transformation has come after a string of reforms which closely follow the model now being adopted by the Government for reforming education authorities across Britain. The borough, which launched one of the first education action zones last year, is still in the forefront of education thinking and is consulting on a move to sweep away the traditional three-term year.
Graham Lane, Newham's education committee chairman since 1994, says: "We are not afraid to do a hands-on job with schools that are failing and they come out of special measures very quickly. We don't tolerate truancy; we take parents to court. We don't tolerate petty violence by parents; we ban them from schools. The drive to raise standards really started three or four years ago, and we've shown a fast improvement. The number of children getting five or more GCSEs is at the national average.
"Our exam results were bottom of the league in 1989. Now we are 123rd out of 150."
The council replaces governors of failing schools and takes control itself to turn the situation around. It also operates a comprehensive quality control scheme to make sure schools hit their targets. But councillors have co-opted six school governors on to their education committee and set up a borough-wide forum for governors to make sure schools' voices are heard. Mr Lane, also education chairman of the Local Government Association, attributed the authority's success to the high calibre of its officers, and politicians' clear leadership.
Ian Harrison, Newham's Director of Education, said the crunch came in 1988 when the council commissioned what turned out to be a damning study by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Two years ago the NFER researchers returned, and found the situation transformed.
The authority, which has historically spent below its limit on education, has increased spending by nearly 35 per cent in the past six years. Mr Harrison said: "We help the schools to set targets, particularly for literacy in primary schools. Support is important as half of our children have English as a second language.
"Headteachers know they don't have to worry about [support] services."
LABOUR'S INNOVATIONS IN NEWHAM
The council has published leaflets for parents listing its exam results and truancy rates since 1986.
Council takes direct control of schools deemed failing by inspectors. In some cases up to half of the staff have been removed
Zero tolerance of truancy and violence in schools. Officials visit all parents after children have been away from school for four days. Eighty parents were prosecuted over their children's non-attendance last year.
School sixth forms have been abolished and replaced with a new sixth- form college to raise staying-on. New system of grants for all sixth-formers whose families are on income support.
Every school has own local council inspector as part of a quality control scheme to monitor the performance of heads and teachers.
School-by-school exam targets to raise standards.
Special needs children integrated into mainstream schools. Support for children speaking English as a foreign language.
Three parent governors and three local authority governors given seats on the education committee.