From noon onwards the taxis roll up, disgorging a stream of well-fed, well-heeled passengers on to the narrow pavement. Through the gates and across the infants' playground of Osmani primary school, the visitors are greeted by deputy head Marie Maxwell and quickly disperse into various classrooms. "These are the high-fliers," says a teacher, but he's talking about a group of Year 5 children clustered round him, not the employees of American finance company Merrill Lynch, who turn up three days a week to do reading, maths, chess and IT with them.
The London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, sits next to the country's richest square mile - the City of London. Yet the worlds of the City workers and the struggling communities next door rarely collide. The local education business partnership, formed 10 years ago, puts some 2,300 people a week into schools in the borough - for their mutual benefit and enjoyment. At Osmani - last year judged the most improved primary school in Britain after coming out of special measures under the headship of Judith Grylls - an astonishing 120 business people a week give up their lunch hour to come and work with a child. "It's a wonderful cross-section," says Ms Grylls. "Executives, secretaries, a range of ages."
A few minutes after arriving, Daryl Power, 29, in mauve check shirt and silver bracelet, is playing a pirate-themed numbers game with Shahidul, nine, who, with four plastic jewels to Mr Power's two, is winning. Mr Power, crouched in the child-sized chair, is purposeful and encouraging - "Right my friend, your go" - and quite strict. Shahidul's grasp of tables is sufficient to make the game tenable and he's engrossed. Session over, they shake hands and say, "Goodbye - see you next week", Shahidul simultaneously beaming at his own success and wincing at the strength of a corporate handshake. "He's very good at multiplication," Mr Power says proudly. The two have been partners for the past few months.
Ninety per cent of the pupils at Osmani are of Bangladeshi origin; none speaks English as a first language. Yet Ms Grylls insists that the main value of the volunteer programme is not in literacy and numeracy, but in opening eyes - giving children a vision of another world. "To be honest, it wouldn't really matter if they didn't do any reading. The most important thing is the children getting to know people who have a completely different experience from living in Whitechapel. It's the understanding of what's possible."
Outside Osmani on a wet afternoon, not much looks possible. The wind blows large pieces of cardboard around the tower blocks and slight, veiled women hurry along behind pushchairs. Rinkoff's bakery, just down the road from the school and testament to the area's Jewish history, advertises that the strudel is in the fridge. Now, the borough is home to Britain's largest Bengali community, with just over one resident in four having Bangladeshi roots. For 200 years, the area has been the first port of call for many arrivals in Britain, and a place people leave if they get the chance. Pupil mobility is high: in the autumn term last year (the most recent for which the school has collated the figures), 19 pupils left Osmani; 17 arrived. Last week, Osmani enrolled its first Vietnamese speaker.
It's a far cry from the experience of 38-year-old lawyer Jenifer Rogers, a first vice-president at Merrill Lynch - although she, too, has recently arrived here, from Tokyo via New York. She doubles up with a colleague to give flexibility; the demands of her job make a cast-iron commitment difficult. "Professionally, things come up, but it's important not to disappoint the child," she says. "I've always wanted to do something for other people."
Sitting on a bench in the gym, she reads Seagull with Shahin, seven; he doesn't know what coast or flock means, or what mussels are. Ms Rogers doesn't know, apparently, that pupils enjoy pizza. "That's junk food," she says, disapprovingly. But both seem happy enough, making eye contact, turning the book's pages.
Marie Maxwell, who co-ordinated the programme at Osmani, but has this term temporarily taken up an acting headship at St John's primary just down the road in Bethnal Green, is enthusiastic about the business partners. "They're not just all sitting there suited and booted," she says. "I see them with children and they're really friendly. I'm quite in awe of them, that they give up their time to do it." The respect is mutual. "I think being a teacher has to be the highest calling, from a societal point of view," says Ms Rogers. "You're working on the future resources of the world and you can tell they're motivated by the good of the children."
The Merrill Lynch staff - all of whom have volunteered for the programme - come in two lunchtime shifts, three days a week. It is logistically challenging; all the adults have to be police-checked, accommodated all round the school, paired, and given basic training. Absences on either side mean rejigging, and both school and the company have a turnover. "There are enormous organisational happenings that have to go on," says the headteacher. "Sometimes we say we don't know why we're doing this. But we do know - the children get a tremendous amount out of it." Merrill Lynch has also supported the school financially during the two years of the partnership, giving treats and extras to the value of some pound;8,000.
But the benefits are not one-way. For Daryl Power, recently arrived in London from Jersey, and the product of a private school education in Waterford, Ireland, it's a learning experience. "It's a great way for us to find out about different people, different cultures," he says. "And a way of switching off from what you do, in a totally different environment."
Mr Power looks like a teacher manque and says the work fulfils a need in him. "I love working with kids - if I wasn't going to do this I would have been a teacher," he says. "This is my way of doing something for my community, although it is quite difficult to find the time."
Down the road at St Paul's Way community school, everyone is in uniform. The children wear the navy and white stipulated by the school, while the adults are all in dark suits. For more than three years, St Paul's has had a relationship with City investment company Gartmore. Jim Friedenthal, head of special needs at the school, remembers the first meeting. "They all looked better dressed than we were, and they were very stiff. I think, looking back, they were quite frightened of what they were walking into. It wasn't school as they knew it; it was noisy, mostly Bangladeshi, with a foreign language going on all around them."
He and his colleagues devised an induction programme for the Gartmore employees, ranging from a potted version of the latest research on brain activity and dyslexia, to simple instructions about how to encourage or correct children. "I kept saying, 'There's no mystery. If you're committed and friendly and they know you like them, they will learn to read'," says Mr Friedenthal. "That's what I believe, anyway." His initial reservations about the scheme, put in place by his predecessor, were quickly dispelled. "They loved coming - they were very loyal, very flexible. They quickly bonded with the kids."
Now, on a Tuesday lunchtime in a first-floor classroom, the room hums with voices; childish ones droning through texts, adult ones making interjections. Sanu Miah, 12, is reading with Dan Heron, 31; the book, The Farty Joke Book by U Smell, was Sanu's choice. Mr Heron, clean-shaven, cufflinked and mildly embarrassed, is willing Sanu through Foul Farts. "Do you know what a belch is?" Sanu looks up and smiles.
Mr Heron, a senior manager at Gartmore, has been a volunteer for three years. An English graduate, he says visiting Sanu at school is "a healthy dose of real life away from the City. It feels nice to do something for somebody else." Conscience-salving corporate giving is not enough, he says. "It's almost too easy to sign the cheque and say, 'This is our contribution.' Gartmore staff are giving something much more important, which is our time. It builds confidence for both the children and the adults." His wife is a teacher in the borough, but he has no desire to be a teacher himself. "I know how badly they're paid."
Tower Hamlets has an improving education record, with several primary schools performing outstandingly; Kobi Nazrul had 100 per cent of children reaching level 4 in English, maths and science at KS2 last year. Osmani was the most improved in the country and St Paul's won a Department for Education and Skills award for improved results.
Mike Tyler, director of the Tower Hamlets education business partnership, has commissioned research that he hopes will show a connection between the corporate input and higher attainment. But such links are hard to prove. Schools are more enthused by less tangible benefits. "A lot of our children have decoding skills," says Jim Friedenthal. "But ask them what something means, and that's difficult for them. I say to volunteers, 'You're not wasting time if you're not reading'. But I don't think they quite believe me."
At St Paul's, the 25 Gartmore volunteers are matched mainly with the one pupil in four with special needs. Although one of the first schools in Britain to receive specialist arts status, and recipient of a ministerial visit from Estelle Morris last year, it is shabby and the upturn in results has proved difficult to maintain, down last year to 22 per cent A*-Cs, from a high of 35 per cent. Eighty per cent of the children qualify for free school meals.
Staff struggle to raise pupil aspirations and here the business partnership is invaluable, says Mr Friedenthal. "These people are like gods, or visitors from some other world coming in," he says. "The women are often glamorous. I thought, 'What good role models, particularly for the girls - showing that there are other ways of planning your life.' So many of our kids hardly leave their estates.
"What I value the most is the window it gives on to another world," he adds, gazing out of his own, and the view it affords of flat-roofed local authority housing, a grid of traffic-ridden streets, some scruffy green patches.
As well as the paired reading, St Paul's pupils have been invited to Gartmore's offices for a party, taken to see Aladdin at the Theatre Royal in Stratford via the Docklands Light Railway, and sent postcards from around the world by vacationing partners.
Mr Friedenthal sometimes amuses himself by asking his pupils who they think their new friends are. "They're a gang who go round schools reading with people," one girl says. And there's always a waiting list for "going Gartmore", as the children call it.
MAKING THE LINKS
Business links with schools are growing as companies recognise the value to themselves and their local communities. Business in the Community, a charity set up 20 years ago to promote such links, has 700 members, including three-quarters of the FTSE 100 top companies. London alone has 9,000 corporate volunteers.
Business in the Community also oversees other activities involving companies and schools.
To find out if there is an established volunteer programme locally, contact your local education business partnership - details on the National Education Business Partnership Network website www.nationalebp.orgor in the Directory of Education Contacts available free from Business in the Community.
Local Education Business Partnerships can give details of Number Partners schemes, and of mentoring, work experience and other projects.
Business in the Community, tel: 0870 600 2482, or see www.bitc-education.org.uk Number Partners website: www.numberpartners.orgVolunteer Reading Help, a charity that recruits volunteers to help in primary schools, tel: 020 7729 4087; www.vrh.org.ukTower Hamlets Education Business Partnership, tel: 020 7377 9497.