The London school using i to explore the world

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Stefano Hatfield went to Woolwich Polytechnic to find out why it buys 600 copies a week

If you went to a school where 45 per cent of the pupils do not speak English as a first language at home; where 50 pupils a year enter Year 7 without speaking any English at all; whose student body speaks up to 70 different language and where pupils come from pretty much any war zone that you read about in i – from Aghanistan to Somalia – you might have a different view of the news from people who did not come from one of the poorest areas of London.

In fact, the chances are that you may not be exposed to the serious news agenda. So, when we learned that one school in Thamesmead, South-east London, was buying 600 copies of i every Wednesday for use in reading and discussion groups, we accepted an invitation to visit and observe how what we produce every day was being put to use.

The 1,500-pupil Woolwich Polytechnic School (all boys until the mixed sixth form) has gone from "good" to "good with outstanding elements" to "outstanding" within three Ofsted reports. Its joint headteachers Byron Parker and Tim Plumb adopt a policy of "no excuses; every child, no matter his or her background, can achieve".

On our "tour"', i's head of marketing Ciara Battigan and I visited a Year 9 (13 and 14-year-olds) class to see all 28 of them studying i during a reading class – all except a couple of boys reading books, and one who was reading The Sun, that is. After a scary (for us) few minutes during which we were told what they thought of that day's i, we took questions about how we put the paper together and how we chose stories.

Later in the day, the fierce Katie Holmes, one of the two English teachers who spared time for us (alongside Tom Lawrence), brought us her class's written critiques of the paper – the best of which we print above, (and in my column on page 3).

It is perhaps not surprising that a news story about racism was higher up the Thamesmead pupils' interest list than it was during i's lunchtime news conferences, and a story about how most cancers are preventable might seem remote to a bunch of 13-year-olds.

It is clear that the average pupil at Woolwich (if there is such a thing) is tough on crime and believes more should be done to investigate the root causes of it.

Stories about crime were viewed in a very black-and-white fashion; sentences needed to be tough to deter people, but there was too much suspicion of ethnic minorities from the police and too little for people to do – especially those without any real prospect of a job in the area.

We spoke to a lecture hall full of sixth-formers about how i is produced and their ambitions to be journalists. I was bowled over by the fearless honesty of the questioning: "what are the beliefs that lie behind newspapers?", "how can you survive if you only cost 20p?", plus much incredulity at the sheer complexity of creating, editing, printing and distributing a newspaper.

As if to confirm what pupils really cared about, the drama performance laid on wasn't an excerpt from a twee musical, but something they had written themselves about this past summer's riots. There were two fine musical performances (under the auspices of a music teacher who was once drummer in Level 42) and a stunning interactive hip-hop dance-off, where i's editor learned a lot about krumping, popping and locking.

As the day went on Mr Parker would whisper to me "that boy's got Tourette's" or "he's not heard from his family since the Kabul bombing yesterday", or how yet another pupil was actually a stowaway refugee from Afghanistan. The individual challenges were endless. By the time it came to lunch, my head was spinning. The focus, intensity, energy and sheer dedication of the teaching staff and pupils alike were humbling and inspiring.

The joint headteachers, the pupils and the teaching staff have much to be proud of. And, seeing i being put to a genuinely positive force beyond the financial transaction of reader buying paper made this long-in-the-tooth editor very proud too.

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