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Catalyst for change

Morpeth School serves an ethnically diverse area that suffers some of the most endemic poverty in London's Tower Hamlets. However, since Scot Alasdair Uist Macdonald became head in 1992, results have improved dramatically. In the New Year's Honours list, he was knighted for his services to education.

Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, east London, has been praised by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Mr Brown visited the school within his first two weeks as prime minister and Mr Blair a month after his election in 1997, when it provided the backdrop for another of his "education, education, education" speeches.

Then, Mr Blair praised the jump in the pupils getting five good GCSEs from 11 per cent three years earlier to 39 per cent. By 2006, that had risen to 75 per cent, despite two thirds of the 1,200 pupils being entitled to free school meals and many coming from families who did not speak English as a first language.

Sir Alasdair, 58, who was raised in Dundee and studied at Aberdeen University, is proud of all that has been achieved. "Twelve years ago, 17 pupils got five good passes: last year, it was 167."

Any suggestion, however, that he is personally responsible for the school's transformation is given short shrift. "A headteacher can be a catalyst, someone that enables others to do things," he says. "There is a limit to what one person can do."

According to Sir Alasdair, the turnaround has been a team effort. The teachers at Morpeth are committed, he says, and have high aspirations for the pupils. "There can be a tendency to think that if the kids are attending, that's OK. But our staff are committed to seeing them do as well as anyone else."

He attributes his success as a leader to being a visible presence in the school and treating everyone equally.

Around half the 11 to 16 year-old pupils are Bangladeshi, a third white working class and the remainder everything from African to Eastern European. Gang violence is a problem. When Sir Alasdair arrived at the school, the fighting was between the Bangladeshi pupils and the black and white pupils. Now it tends to be between gangs of Bangladeshi youths, he says.

Sir Alasdair has dealt with conflict before. He lived and taught in Papua New Guinea for four years, where he had to deal with inter-tribal tensions. "The issues are the same, whether you are in London or Papua New Guinea. It's about adolescent males and their identity and territory."

Clear boundaries have been set. "You have to draw a line and say: 'whatever happens outside we won't accept in the school'."

Teachers patrol the grounds and surrounding streets over lunch and after school. And all pupils attend workshops on conflict resolution.

Morpeth has a strong ethos and a wide range of extra-curricular activities, says Sir Alasdair. "We want things that hook the kids and make them want to come to school."

Table tennis, for instance, has been a hit and the school boasts some of the best players in the UK. But to Sir Alasdair, the sport is irrelevant: the importance lies in pupils learning they can excel. Morpeth also has a "thriving music department, a "huge amount" of sport and drama and lots of trips.

Extra tuition is available. "When we introduced Saturday morning revision, half of year 11 (equivalent of S4) turned up," says Sir Alasdair. "We suddenly realised a lot wanted to work, but it's quite hard to own up to that in front of a class of kids who might be quite scathing of it."

His mission is not just about turning the pupils on to learning - Sir Alasdair is also after their parents. "It's about raising their aspirations too," he says. "School improvement has a snowball effect," he believes. "You get some things right and then, because of that, you get into a virtuous circle as opposed to a vicious one. If you break into that circle, you tend to get benefits and improvements and you're not sure where they come from."

Despite his school's successes, however, Sir Alasdair acknowledges its limits: some youngsters, he concludes, are simply beyond reach.


Even a minister in an SNP Government finds there are lessons to be learnt from England. Scotland's Minister for Schools and Skills has joined Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in praising Morpeth School.

Maureen Watt received a guided tour from Sir Alasdair Macdonald last week during this year's Moving Young Minds international conference, which looked at the use of technology to enhance education.

At Morpeth, Ms Watt was amazed to find "a haven of learning and caring" despite "the challenging nature" of the area. She says: "Here is a school to which pupils love to come and the staff are well liked - a credit to the leadership within the school community itself."

Ms Watt was less impressed with a scheme which saw every child entering the school getting a laptop. She points out that poor families would be unable to make the most of the computer because they did not have landlines and, therefore, no access to the internet.

Sir Alasdair agrees: "If we had the money in cash it's probably not how we would have spent it - it was not the best way of bridging the digital divide."

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