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The National league Tables debate: Happy, fulfilled, but failing

It may be a modern clich#233, but an inner-city primary school can be an oasis amid a lot of grot. It certainly is when you step inside Curwen Primary, nestled amid the urban blight of Plaistow in the east London borough of Newham. It is like being in a movie that suddenly switches from monochrome to brilliant colour. Outside all is vertical, grey and static; inside there is a horizontal, riotously colourful world pulsating with life.

It is, believe it or not, an egg-shaped school, almost completely surrounded by playspace. Being Newham, this is not green open fields but tarmac, albeit flanked by nicely landscaped border shrubs. Smack in the middle of the nursery, serving 104 part-timers, is an enormous Wendy house.Tiny children from the four corners of the world move in and out of it purposefully, carrying saucepans, loading up baskets, pushing dolls in pushchairs. In the long, wide hall that attaches the juniors to the infants sections, children create bubble paintings. All around them, on the walls inside and outside the classrooms, are art displays: paintings, drawings, collages and 3D constructions showing excitingly high standards. A few feet away, a child and helper read an EnglishGujarati version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

The headteacher, Elizabeth Barrett, has been at the helm for 15 years, first entering the school as a probationary teacher. It must have been love at first sight. There is, even to an outsider, a palpable chemistry to the place that, like the head herself, exudes calm and security. And if there is anything that these 470-odd children need, it is security.

High unemployment and poverty have made many of these families movable playthings of the housing trusts, shunted around from one temporary accommodatio n to the next with no consideration of the havoc that this plays with their education and their friendships. Between September and May of last year, 50 children left and 36 new arrivals came. This past Easter alone, 12 children went off the roll. Nearly half are on free school meals. In line with Newham's pioneering inclusion policy, there are six statemented children, two with severe learning difficulties, who are fully integrated into the school. Another 34 are on the special needs register. Ten refugees attend the school. They are among the two-thirds who speak English as a second language, representing as wide a mixture as you are likely to find in London: children from Thailand, West Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Poland and the Indian sub-continent. The rest are African-Caribbean and white British. A lot of the locals have family connections with the school going back to its original establishment in 1886. Elizabeth Barrett has taught many of the children's parents.

Despite its myriad social and economic problems, last summer's inspection by the Office for Standards in Education was glowing: "the quality of education is good.. .broad and balanced curriculum...overall quality of teaching is good...positive ethos...leadership and management of the school are good...very efficient administrative and financial control." The children are happy and fulfilled. There is a caring environment, a general respect for other cultures, a strong emphasis on achievement. Parents and grandparents come in to do paired reading with children. Eight students from South Bank University are training at the school. Half the staff voluntarily give extra time to run clubs during the lunch hour and after school in aerobics,music, computers, football.

To all intents and purposes, Curwen is a successful school. But if you look only at the key stage 2 national test results, you would think otherwise. While in English, Curwen children rank higher than the Newham average (43 per cent as opposed to 37 per cent), they score well below the national average (58 per cent) and significantly lower than Newham's mean figures for maths and science. Those facts mask curious anomalies, not least of which is that before the inspection last summer, Curwen was receiving no language support whatsoever from the authority.

"The inspectors were gobsmacked at how well we were coping," laughs Ms Barrett. But how does she explain the relatively high results in English and the low ones in maths and science? "We have a strong emphasis on reading at the school with lots of volunteers coming into help, as well as paired reading, a very popular lending library in the nursery, bilingual texts and things like merit certificates to encourage children."

Still, the discrepancy is a matter of concern. The school is working to address it and also the variation between boys' and girls' attainment at key stage 1. The difference, with boys lagging behind girls, is far higher than the Newham average. That few pupils of either gender enter the school with basic reading and numeracy skills helps to explain this to some extent, but not to excuse it.

And Ms Barrett is not one to make excuses. Hers is a happy school, this little scrap of paradise, but one that is grappling with the social ills of a divided Britain. If there is one mission statement that has resonance and meaning, it is Curwen Primary's: "Recognise achievement, raise expectations, realise potential. "

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