Dagenham, on the outskirts of London, looks bleak in the grey chill of January. New efforts at job-boosting haven't offset the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs when the local Ford plant stopped producing cars. But locals say that the community spirit of the place survives, and nowhere is that more evident than at Dagenham Priory Comprehensive, newly designated an Arts College and pushing its way up the league tables.
Frenetic building activity matches the sense of purpose in the school, where 1,100 pupils contain, according to the assistant head teacher Kevin Redmond, some of the brightest and most motivated pupils anywhere, as well as some of "the kids you'd find in most schools" - who will "give teachers who haven't got a sufficient range of skills quite a hard time".
Dagenham has four NQTs who have launched themselves into this "mixed environment", as Redmond describes it, and as assistant head in charge of training, it's his job to see that they have those skills. He says it's a very good proving ground for a teaching career. "It's not the sort of school where you are going to get very far by saying 'open your exercise books and turn to page 37'," he says. "It just wouldn't work. Here, you have to excite and enthuse students - you have to present your subject in a continuously interesting way. Teachers who do well here do so because they become good teachers."
A former City University student, Layfetta McDonald is up for the task. With a degree in business management and systems, a year's postgraduate training in business studies and economics at the Institute of Education , and six months at Dagenham behind her, she hasn't lost her enthusiasm for her subject. "I'm passionate about it," she says. "It's fascinating because students come to me in year 10 not having done business at all, and they are curious about what it is - you can build on that."
McDonald has found Redmond's advice - "be firm but kind" - a useful mantra. "Some things you are told just stick with you, and that has stuck with me," she says. She believes in consistency - never giving in because someone is moaning about the seating plan, keeping to the rules, and, above all, not taking things that happen in the classroom personally.
"I think that students have got friends, parents and teachers. The support system works if each person carries out a separate role. In any case, when it comes to discipline, she says, pupils can have really short memories. "I was sent a Christmas card by someone who was being really difficult in class only a month ago. All that is over now - the pupils don't bear grudges and neither should the teacher."
Jasprit Dhami, a history postgraduate teacher also six months through the NQT year at Dagenham, agrees. "I learnt quite quickly that you have to separate the personal and professional. Of course, I still like it when pupils send me cards, and it makes life easier if pupils like you, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the learning that is going on."
In the hurly-burly of a city school, the best support that new and not-so-new teachers have is one another, and both McDonald and Dhami speak up for the support system at Dagenham, both the subject-specific weekly mentor sessions that are timetabled and safeguarded, and the more informal help available from colleagues. Redmond says that the school is exceptionally lucky in the quality of friendship and co-operation among staff - "there are no little groups, but a sense of sharing" - and that is appreciated by apprehensive new arrivals. All new staff, not just those on the NQT year, attend meetings on subjects deemed of general interest, such as how to organise a school trip, or how the school's behaviour policy works.
The mentors, because they work in the same department, are liked by the NQTs because they can offer practical tips and suggestions about things such as topics and assessments, as well as the usual career guidance in terms of the best courses to take, or how to conduct yourself in class. "All teachers initially look to their subject colleagues for support," says Redmond. "Beyond that there is a wider system of pastoral care for pupils and teachers alike."
The behaviour of pupils was Dhami's biggest fear when she arrived. "I was worried that I would have to become a stereotype - that I would only be able to survive by becoming very strict and not really being myself".
In practice, though, things have turned out better than she feared. "I've found out that I can be my usual laid-back, friendly self, but firm also," she says. "I've not really had any problems here, because there are procedures to follow. I sent a student out because he kept shouting - he came back in and continued, so I followed the rules, sent him out again and gave him a referral card to his form tutor and a detention."
"What you find out quite quickly is that coming in and having your own class - your name on the door, not travelling round the classrooms - really makes a difference. You have that status and the pupils know the difference".
Both agree that the workload in their first year has been, if anything, lighter than anticipated. "I'd say to people, don't be scared - if anything, this year is easier than the postgraduate year because you are more in control. Before, we had to teach and do academic work - now we can concentrate on the teaching. And having been to the school on placements, we feel that we know the ropes," says Dhami.
"You do learn as you go along," agrees McDonald. "That's what makes it such fun. You go into other classrooms and realise that other people have different teaching styles. You learn new things."
Both are planning on staying when they finish their first year - for Dagenham Priory, it's the ultimate vote of confidence.