Abraham Male is an ambitious boy at an ambitious school. “I want to be president,” he says. Quite a target for a London teenager. In response to giggles from other pupils, he explains that he means president of Uganda. Other pupils at Kingsford Community School, all impeccably behaved, have more conventional dreams. They confidently proclaim their plans to be financiers, lawyers, physiotherapists and doctors.
At nearby Little Ilford School, Gurpreet Singh tells me proudly that he has won a place at a private school. His classmate Musa Khan got an interview for a scholarship to Eton. You would struggle to detect that these children are at comprehensives in Newham, east London, one of England’s poorest boroughs.
Little Ilford serves a tough group of students. More than half of the children receive free school lunches; Yvonne Powell, the head teacher, says the school sometimes steps in to buy clothes for the most disadvantaged. Yet in 2011, 57 per cent of their 16-year-olds passed GCSEs in English, maths and three other subjects. The national average is only a shade higher, at 58.9 per cent. And this is not an exception. All of Newham now gets similar results – a remarkable achievement for an area that does not approach the national average in any other respect.
The drive these children display is the key to their success, as it is in even better performing boroughs like Islington, where raising aspirations is recognised as a trigger for improving schools. But in Newham it is a particularly difficult task.
“You choose to work in Newham. There is always a moral purpose to teaching, and if you work here that purpose has to be hard and fast,” says Yvonne Powell, who brings an obvious passion to her job. Newham is one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse areas. In 2011, 88 per cent of the pupils at her school spoke English as a second language. According to the 2010 census of the borough’s 16-year-olds, only one third speak English as a first language.
Nor does Little Ilford have the benefit of an inspiring group of buildings. The school is built in a familiar pattern – one of thousands of drab, decaying collections of boxes that blight views across England. But while the buildings are dispiriting, the place throbs with a sense of mission.
The school is tidy, but not neat. Any flat surface that can drill home a message or commemorate a student’s achievement is enlisted to do so. A sign stencilled on to a door asks children to remember geometry equipment. Graffiti-style murals implore them to “aspire”.
Powell has the mix of virtues that defines the best school leaders: she nurtures, beaming with pride at Hazik Ali, brought up in care, who now dreams of being an architect. But she also uses the words “no excuses” a lot during our conversation. I later spot her refereeing a football match, her diminutive figure commanding the much larger boys rushing around her.
Down the road, Joan Deslandes, head teacher at Kingsford Community School, exudes the same sense of fierce determination for her children and pride in her vocation. She agrees that teaching in the borough requires a “sense of mission”. Physically, Kingsford is a very different school to Little Ilford: it feels spacious and wide corridors traverse the site. But, as with its neighbour, ambition for the pupils’ success is the force that animates the institution. The school teaches Mandarin and has organised a pipeline of scholarships for pupils to progress to the private Brighton College.
No one is sure how many people live in the borough of Newham: Whitehall has just increased its population estimate by 13 per cent to more than 270,000. The council believes that this figure is still 30,000 short – a consequence of being one of the first ports of call for immigrants arriving in London.
On Friday afternoons, crowds of young men spill out of the borough’s mosques. On Saturdays, Christian preachers volubly offer help with the casting out of demons. A 12th-century Anglican church, which would look peculiarly rustic in any other corner of London, seems like a foreign intrusion into modern Newham. But its vicar is fully immersed in borough life.
The Reverend Quintin Peppiatt is also a local Labour party councillor – and the mayoral cabinet member responsible for schools. Chattering as he drives through the borough, he speaks at length about regeneration and – a popular topic locally – the mayor’s unrelenting ambitions for Newham.
Parts of the borough have already improved: there is no lack of entrepreneurs crowding its markets and high streets. Peppiatt also points out hotels that used to rent rooms by the hour but now ply a respectable trade. “We used to have to put up people applying for jobs at the council there,” he giggles.
Newham is being connected to central London with ever more rapid transport links, a legacy of this year’s Olympics, for which it is a host borough. But it is geographically isolated; three rivers, marshland, cemeteries, a sewage works, main roads and parks pen residents in – and narrow children’s horizons.
When Laura McInerney, a teacher at a neighbouring Newham school, won funding for a trip to reward one group of pupils, she asked where they wanted to go. Their first choice was the local Nando’s restaurant. Pressed to think further afield, they suggested Nando’s in Greenwich. (She took them to Paris.) Powell says her ambition is to “educate our children to be middle class” and, like Deslandes, she is pulling it off.
The business of fostering aspiration is far from simple. Every child at Little Ilford visits a university within their first three years. The school is now running a “Russell Group path” – a programme designed to lead pupils to one of the UK’s 24 leading institutions.
Powell says, however, that the real challenge is not the children. “My role is to raise the aspirations of my parents ... You can’t raise achievement until you raise their aspirations.” Deslandes agrees: “A strong connection with parents is essential if that gap [between rich and poor] is to be bridged.”
Powell holds workshops to help these families at Little Ilford. Her job is not just about school work. She gives suggestions to parents about visiting museums with their children, and ideas for documentaries that they can watch with them. The frequency of contact between the school and parents stands out. In many schools, parents will speak to schools on three evenings a year; at Little Ilford, they communicate with the school constantly.
In two cases, the school had phoned their parents the previous evening. I asked first-year pupil Millene Nsafo why her parents had been contacted. Slowly and sheepishly, she said: “My behaviour has improved.” Najeb Naserim, recently arrived from Afghanistan, reported with a smile that his family had been given good news on his academic progress.
The schools also press parents to improve their own education so they can raise their children’s sights. Deslandes encourages “any of our parents who are unemployed to take up courses” at the local further education colleges and universities.
Communication skills can be improved with the schools’ involvement. Speaking to children at both, only a few came from homes where English was the sole language. A group of east European parents at Kingsford had been given tuition to help them assist their children.
Father Fred Ashford-Okai, who works as a community cohesion officer at Kingsford, says, “Language acquisition is just as important for parents as for children.” Powell agrees: Little Ilford used to have Bengali parents evenings. “Now,” she says, “my expectation is that parents speak English.”
As it happens, the ethnic group that lags behind most consistently is not impeded by a language barrier. Deslandes says her school needs to expend “extra attention and focus on white British children”. She recently laid on a fish-and-chips evening to reach out to these parents.
Newham’s education story is old-fashioned: a cluster of hard-working schools producing ever better results in increasingly grotty buildings. The area has academies – standalone schools outside the formal local authority system – but it is hardly a crucible for reform. Indeed, Newham’s success is not the product of new incentives, clever league table design or policy interventions. It is down to sheer bloody-mindedness. The schools’ success is largely built on ignoring the incentives laid out for them in recent years by the Department for Education.
Much of this is down to the strength of the school leaders. Both Powell and Deslandes have ignored the lure of “equivalencies”, vocational qualifications that could be used to help propel the schools up the league tables. They have stuck with traditional subjects and qualifications.
Little Ilford, like Kingsford, only caters for 11- to 16-year-olds. But a member of staff is devoted to chasing down ex-pupils who dare to let them down by dropping out at 17. Powell is not going to allow niceties such as the school leaving age get in the way of the ambition she has for her students.
Chris Cook is the FT’s education correspondent