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'I talk to them about reaching for the sky'

Paul Grant does not want his pupils to be written off as educational failures because they are working class. Eighty-five per cent of those who attend Robert Clack school in Dagenham, north-east London, are from poor, white backgrounds. Nearly 40 per cent receive free school meals.

Mr Grant, the head, believes that many of them would welcome vocational training at the age of 14.

"For some boys you need radical options," he said. "You need work experience, working in a trade. Unfortunately schools don't have motor workshops, carpentry and plumbing facilities. That would absolutely transform things."

But middle-class heads should not make class-based judgments about boys'

potential.

"Sometimes people look at working-class boys as though they're an alien breed," he says. "But they're no different to anyone else. They can achieve high academic results.

"I talk about achievement to my boys. I talk about reaching for the sky. If it becomes clear that's not the way for some boys, then you look at other options. It's horses for courses."

When Mr Grant took over as head in 1997, teachers compared the school unfavourably with the Iraqi town of Basra during the first Gulf War. But, last year, 79 per cent of its pupils achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE, compared with 16 per cent in 1997. Boys are matching girls' levels of achievement and outperforming them in some subjects.

Mr Grant attributes this to a rigorous discipline code: senior staff regularly check what goes on in class. There is a strict uniform policy.

And he has invested in an in-school referral unit for disruptive pupils.

"The pupils want you to take care of peer pressure, of the gang environment," he said. "So having strong discipline is absolutely key. It's very hard, unrelenting work. It's not glamorous. It won't get you invited to Hampstead dinner parties, but it has to be done."

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