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The Interview - 'I believe anything is achievable'

Bushra Nasir became head of Plashet School in 1993. She has revived the once failing school, and in March was voted one of the most powerful Muslim women in the UK.

Did you always want to teach?

I wanted to be a doctor, but my A-level grades weren't high enough to do medicine at a London university. My desire was to go away to study, but my father in particular wasn't happy with that. He wanted me to live at home while I was at university, so I ended up doing a degree in biochemistry and genetics at Queen Mary's in east London. I was offered a Ph.D. in the genetic field, but I decided to go into teaching. I went to St Paul's Way Community School in London for my teaching practice, which was a tough school at that point, and learnt a lot about behaviour management - how to motivate children and make science exciting. To go through a tough experience in your teaching practice is good. When I went to Connaught School for Girls, east London, I enjoyed the teaching because I didn't have to worry about behaviour.

Is working in a state school important to you?

Yes, because I'd had positive experiences myself. I came to England when I was eight, not being able to read or write English, but was nurtured by teachers. I'd benefited so much and opportunities had come my way because of my education, so I wanted to contribute to the state sector.

Were you always interested in working at girls' schools?

I think my initial experiences perhaps were coloured by my experiences at St Paul's Way. The girls there were passive learners and the boys were the ones with the Bunsen burners. They weren't timid, but it just wasn't seen as a girly thing to do. When I first started in science education there was such a difference between girls' and boys' achievements. When I went to Connaught, I taught 11 to 14-year-olds for a long time and we were able to move their practical and debating skills forward. Our girls started to achieve. It was a safe environment at Connaught and that has affected my thinking that girls achieve well in single-sex schools and the figures now show it.

You've managed to take Plashet from failing to getting good results - how did you do it?

When I took over the headship it was still considered a good school in Newham, east London. The results were low, but all Newham results were low. The previous head had done a lot of work to give her credit and she had moved the school forward. But change takes time.

I could see potential for improvement and I was just in a good position at the time, with more funds coming into the school. When I was appointed I said I would not send my children to Plashet School. When they asked me why, I said that there's not enough rigour, enough stretch, and that the facilities and resources weren't up to scratch.

I began by changing expectations at lots of levels - among the teachers, governors and parents. Shifting results took three or four years, but when you get success, it breeds success and it's gone from strength to strength.

What are your views on faith schools?

I think there's always been controversy around the issue. But faith schools have been around for a long time. I think that their existence is fine in terms of equality of opportunity and parental choice. The issue I have is that my experience has been positive in the state system and within multi-faith schools, and its something I feel is better for me and the children. It's the type of school that I want to lead. Faith schools could be divisive and make the school insular. But they are now being looked at in terms of how they contribute to community cohesion.

How do you feel about being in the public eye, particularly recently when you were named on the Muslim Women Power List?

I feel honoured and privileged to be in that position. Particularly as a headteacher, you are in a position of influence, not just with young people, but also to change sections in the wider community. I think that with power comes responsibility - it's good because there aren't a lot of positive role models out there for Muslim women and there is a lot of negativity.

When I was appointed in 1993, a paper called me and said: "Do you realise you're the first female Muslim head of a state school in the country?" It surprised me, but when I thought about my education I hadn't seen many Muslim role models.

How do your pupils react to the publicity?

They're positive, especially since we've been included in Ofsted's 12 outstanding schools report. My pupils are confident young women with high self-esteem and self-worth, and I'm sure that's down to the environment that's been created in the school - that anything is achievable. I'm public with pupils and parents about my achievements and what I see as the school's achievements, so that they can see what a normal person from a normal background can achieve.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for the day?

I would rationalise all the changes I made. In secondary schools at the moment, there are so many changes to deal with - we just need to get the priorities in order. The principle I've used at Plashet is - is this the education I want for my child? This is what the Schools Secretary should be doing.

What's the worst excuse you've ever had?

We've got a six-foot fence around the school and I caught a boy climbing over it. He said he was coming to hand in his sister's work.


2007: Fellowship, Queen Mary College, University of London

2006: Honorary doctorate, University of East London

2005: Asian Professional Woman of the Year

2003: CBE for services to education

1993: Head, Plashet School, east London

1990-93: Deputy head, Plashet School

1975-90: Science teacher, head of science department, senior teacher, Connaught School for Girls, east London.

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