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Bank of expertise

Reva Klein visits a school where a business partnership could turn around its fortunes

It helps to be a well-connected school these days. On the face of it, Morpeth secondary in east London is not. Set amid the drab tower blocks of Bethnal Green, its Sixties concrete and glass makes it appear every inch the archetypal inner-city school.

Last year, it shared the distinction of being equal bottom of the Tower Hamlets GCSE league table. But this year, headteacher Alisdair Macdonald predicts that the school will jump to fifth place.

Clearly, something is happening to Morpeth. And this is where being well- connected comes in. Because, although no one is attributing Morpeth's turn- around to it, an innovative partnership between the school and the American merchant bank, Bankers Trust, has helped not only to bring money into the school but to inject aspirational energy.

This is not your usual education business partnership scheme where a company gives money, has a photograph taken of the managing director presenting the headteacher with a cheque and then heads back to the office. This partnership is different. Bankers Trust has made a Pounds 45,000 three-year rolling commitment to the school. The arrangement is flexible, meaning that the money will increase or indeed carry on for longer if the company considers it useful and appropriate in its annual reviews. In addition, staff are involved in a "Give as you earn" scheme, in which Bankers Trust matches each pound donated by staff. Just as embedded as the money in this scheme is the commitment of Bankers Trust staff to give a bit of themselves, personal finances and soul, to the school.

The Pounds 45,000 is being ploughed into a new study centre, a synthesis of homework club and resource centre. Opened last July, the centre has already been given three computers, with another ten to come.

The hardware is relatively new cast-offs from Bankers Trust. The choice of software is a collaboration between the Trust's technical department and the school. There are also dictionaries, textbooks and other resources. Children can even work on their music coursework, using keyboards or cassette players with earphones, so as not to disturb anyone else.

The concept of the study centre came from the school's senior management, building on its already existing homework club. Deputy head Jo Dibb says: "To raise levels of achievement, we had to change the culture and the ethos of the school. People coming in from outside open possibilities of change. By giving us support for learning, they are helping to create aspirations for our pupils."

Support is certainly what these children need. Half of the families are unemployed; 70 per cent of children receive free school meals. But unusually for a school in the borough, Morpeth has an intake closely matching the ethnic mix of Tower Hamlets, with 50 per cent of pupils Bangladeshi, 35 per cent white and 10 per cent "other," mainly Turkish. (The usual pattern is for schools to be predominantly white or black.)

Aspirations in the area are low. But they are changing, according to Mr Macdonald. "Ten years ago girls would say they wanted to go into jobs at Barclays Bank when they left school. Even five years ago, only 30 per cent were going into further education. Now, it's 80 per cent. They're talking about going to university."

The ideology driving Bankers Trust is an object lesson for corporate sponsorship. Lucy Rinaldi, chair of the bank's community affairs committee, had the idea of partnering a school after going on one of the Prince of Wales' Seeing is Believing visits as part of his Business in the Community programme. Tower Hamlets put her in touch with their Education Business Partnership, through which she found Morpeth. "We're one and a half miles from the school but we knew nothing about them and they knew nothing about us," she says.

American businesses have a long established tradition of sponsoring schools that involves the whole staff. Rinaldi says: "We decided that we had lots of busy executives all keen and interested to put something back into the community we work in."

These are a series of residential study breaks which Bankers Trust is funding. A group of 30 pupils from a particular year spend 48 hours focusing on a specific subject (during the October half-term a Year 11 group was working on maths), being tutored by their own teachers as well as degree level specialists from among Bankers Trust staff. The venue is King Edward School in Witley, Surrey, a private school that happens to have among its alumni one Lucy Rinaldi. There go those connections again.

They don't end there, either. The bank has put together a list of staff and spouses in different jobs (from secretaries to travel agents to lawyers) who are willing to go to Morpeth to give talks to pupils about what they do, what qualifications are necessary and how to put together a curriculum vitae. Launching this end of the project was a photographer that Bankers Trust uses. After giving his talk he was so enthused by pupils' responses that he volunteered to help the school's photography club. There is also a work experience programme for six children at a time being organised.

If the enthusiasm for the study centre is anything to go by, this partnership is a winner. Demand is so great that the school library is having to be used for the overspill. Staffed by three teachers and open before and after school, the place is chock-a-block with kids getting down to business.

Shahina, 16, speaks for many of her friends when she says "We do a lot of work here. Sometimes it's hard to work in class and at home it can be overcrowded. " For 14-year-old Gulcin, the study centre is a sanctuary, "If we were at home, we would watch telly instead. We don't have distractions here and we don't have anyone moaning at us."

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