Despite its status as an icon of good practice, Newham's education service has its share of problems. Last year members of the National Association of Schoolteachers Union of Women Teachers held a one-day strike over the right to retain long summer holidays. In other recent incidents, primary teachers fined for refusing to complete reports threatened industrial action, and a mother unreasonably banned from her child's primary school after a row with a teacher was awarded pound;250 in compensation. But there is also a plethora of imaginative developments in this inner London borough, such as a project sponsored by Tate amp; Lyle to see whether playing music helps children to learn and behave better. The government-backed Fathers and Reading scheme is being piloted here, and there is an initiative to encourage younger people from ethnic minorities to become governors. At one school the authority is intending to disapply the national curriculum completely, and a scheme to reduce permanent exclusions of African and African Caribbean children by increasing co-operation between schools and the authority appears to be working.
In Newham, one of the flagship Education Action Zones, Government initiatives such as the Excellence in Cities programme are embraced wholeheartedly - by the authority, at least. In 1988 the education committee was given a nightmare view of its own borough in a report it had commissioned from the National Federation for Educational Research. Newham took up this challenge and under director of education Ian Harrison has transformed the borough, winning many accolades. But is Newham's policy of inclusive education a "burdensome dogma", as some people have said? There are only two special schools in the borough. Instead, all schools have access to behaviour and learning support units outside the classroom. Are these services the "well-managed preventative strategy" that the Department for Education and Employment is looking for? Is Newham making the most of its resources? Or is the picture less rosy?
Sceptics are heard to mutter darkly that "things are not all they seem". What happens to all the children with so-called educational and behavioural disorders now that there are no secondary phase EBD schools? Are they left to wander the streets? Mike Leaman, head of Eleanor Smith Primary Special School dismisses that idea. "These rumours have been going the rounds for years," he says. "It's just sour grapes."
Mr Leaman talks about his vision for Eleanor Smith. "We want to work in partnership with schools. We can provide outreach support, part-time placements for children who need it, training for mainstream school staff, and whole-school support. We want to tackle demoralisation among staff desperate to make use of a 'weapon of last resort'. We can also help where there is a high turnover of staff by providing some stability for those who are new to the school. "None of our children attends Eleanor Smith full time. They come for between one and four days a week - sometimes just for a term or two. But usually they spend most of their time here to start with, and we gradually move them to full time mainstream school over one or two years."
Could there be some sort of cover-up in Newham? Could reality be different from the official story? "I sit on the exclusion panel in Newham - we vet every permanent exclusion in the borough so I know exactly who has been excluded and why," responds Mr Leaman. "I just cannot see how the figures could be massaged. Look, not everybody believes in inclusion in Newham, but it does have broad support, arrived at through genuine consultation. There's a high degree of deprivation in the borough, and we attract teachers who like that challenge and share the vision."
What does happen to children he works with when they are due to leave primary school? "We help them move on to mainstream secondary school, and the behaviour support and tuition service provides the back-up."
The New Tunmarsh Centre is the base for this support service. Lynda Haddock, the recently-appointed head of service, says: "There is a commitment to inclusion at all levels." She is positive about the changes that she is going to see through. More of the budget for support teachers is going directly to the schools, and a slimmed-down behaviour support service will concentrate on helping staff in schools. This daring strategy assumes less need for off-site provision when schools cannot cope. "Draw a triangle," says Lynda Haddock, "and put the school at one corner, the teacher at the next, and the student at the third. Normally, the triangle is steady, but when children are in difficulties it starts to wobble. The statementing system puts a label on the child, when we should be asking what to do about the wobbly triangle. We can try to help the teacher and the school to stabilise first - in this way we are also helping the child. We can help, without blaming or teacher-bashing, and without putting all the responsibility on the child's shoulders."
But when it comes to technique, assertive discipline is the order of the day, and the attractively-packaged pastoral support programme is carefully tailored to children's specific needs.
In the foyer at Langdon School there is a list of more than 25 languages spoken at the school. But very little is wasted on "top-show". The impression throughout is of limited resources carefully used, of determined and confident efficiency. People are smiling and there is plenty of space. Steve Twigg, one of the school's permanent special needs staff, says: "You have to pick things up early, and distinguish between naughtiness and genuine difficulty. I don't like the term EBD - it should at least be EBSD (the S is for social). You can't get anywhere without good information. If you know what's really happening you've got more chance of finding a way through the problem."
What are his views on "behaviour modification"? "We don't really think like that. We're more interested in providing consistent boundaries and valuing the strengths of each and every student." Nothing too revolutionary here, except that these ideas are coming from a front-line worker, not a highly-paid consultant or senior manager. It is a marketing exercise to convince people that inclusion can not only work, but improve exam results and overall behaviour," he says. "Staff develop better techniques in a challenging environment. There are excellent communications in the school and that really helps." Vanessa Wiseman, Langdon's head, agrees. "We work at communication. In a school with nearly 2,000 secondary age pupils, a conscious effort is required. We have an open briefing once a week, and a bulletin." Ad-hoc staff meetings and rapidly-circulated notes play a crucial part.
They both stress how important it is that staff can admit when things are not working with a difficult pupil. Vanessa Wiseman says: "We are not afraid of emotions but we are also quite hard-headed. Staff can share problems and we provide support and understanding."
She relies on an objective evidence-base. "Teachers don't use the withdrawal room much, but when they do a copy of the documentation has to reach me quickly. If a particular student is repeatedly in there, I will pass the information to Steve Twigg and he will look into it. If a teacher seems to be over-using the room we deal with that, too. We base our prompt response on what we know about the individual concerned."
The human touch is evident, too. "I insist that staff be pleasant to each other and the youngsters. You can't not be part of things." There have been no permanent exclusions for more than four years (although the school has no specific policy of non-exclusion) and their GCSE exam results are well above the local average.
The Willow Tree Project is a charity currently working in two schools, with others hoping to buy into the service. Most of the cost is met by Willow Tree, with 20 per cent coming out of the school budget. Willow Tree counsellors' task is to bring children through the often harrowing experiences which underlie their problems. This could never be routine. Shirley Lunn, co-ordinator of the project, says: "Our vision is to provide something in school which will enable the children to remain in school and participate to the best of their ability, raising achievement in school." What would happen to these children if Willow Tree was not there? "There would have to be more permanent exclusions."
Shirley has a different "wobbly triangle" in mind. Hers includes the child, the school and the parents. "Schools have to make a commitment to the project and provide a room for our sessions. We also have to get the parents on our side. We are more likely to say to parents: 'Your child is having a bit of trouble in class, and we would like to give them some help,' than 'they need counselling or therapy'." She makes a home visit. "I have yet to meet a parent who would not sign the consent form afterwards," she says.
Marian Rosen, head of Star Primary, sees Willow Tree as one important element in an array of strategies which she employs to improve behaviour across the school. Brought in to raise standards after a terrible report by the Office for Standards in Education, she makes a fine distinction between children acting up because discipline has broken down, and those with deep-seated problems. "It's all based on our assertive discipline programme. Children move through five stages before we require them to go into the restart programme. Most children only need this once, if at all. If a child keeps coming round, we employ a second level of strategy." This is where Willow Tree gets involved, or the Child and Family Consultation Service. "We also use peer mediation, and have Circle Time." Marian Rosen is guided by a sense of the value of the child's contribution, of good staff and professional development, and of good relationships including all those who have an impact on the child's well-being and educational development.
"Right at the beginning I took the whole school for an assembly, on my own," she says. "The staff thought I was mad, and frankly so did I! But I had to show them it could be different. Something happened, the cloud lifted. The teachers started to believe in themselves again. The children have started asking the teachers 'what do I need to do to improve?' and the effect on staff motivation is wonderful - now that's what I call behaviour reinforcement!" I left Newham and crossed the Thames by ferry, pondering what had made this east London borough seem so different. All the people I had talked to believed in "Newham" and in its children. Shirley Lunn had said with pride:
"It's the best borough." They share a principled vision of their own role in the pursuit of best practice.
They aim high, and they aim together.
Adam Abdelnoor is a chartered psychologist specialising in children at risk from school failure. He was recently awarded a Churchill Fellowship to survey education systems in the US, New Zealand and France. E-mail: email@example.com
NEWHAM has 14 secondary and 64 primary schools. The ethnic minorities population is now a majority, and one in four schoolchildren needs language support. Unemployment is above the national average, and more than 43 per cent of school-children are entitled to free school meals. Newham has the highest percentage of children with statements in mainstream schools in the country and, apart from Rutland, the lowest percentage (0.2 per cent) of pupils in special schools. Until this financial year, the authority also retained an unusually high proportion of its education budget. From this April additional funding will go directly to schools where children have particular needs.
As for results - it depends what figures you look at. In December last year a TES analysis suggested that children at key stage 3 in Newham were doing better than those in boroughs where fewer children had free school meals. But only two months before, the same sort of analysis suggested the opposite - only this time the figures referred to KS2. Although GCSE results are well below the England average for five or more A*-C passes (35 per cent compared with 48 per cent), it is just above average on five or more A* to G passes, and well below the national average for no passes at all. Year on year improvements for the borough are above average.