Taking on the world

Imagine a troubled school where fixed-term exclusions are running at more than 350 a year - with knives and violence often the cause. How fast could it be turned around - if at all? At White Hart Lane school, a cohort of multilingual, racially mixed teachers has joined an inspiring new head to transform children's lives in one of London's most deprived boroughs. Wendy Wallace finds out how

Early in the morning, the reception area at White Hart Lane comprehensive feels one step away from a state of emergency - pupils dart through carrying urgent messages about cover and sickness as a stream of visitors files past students congregating for a trip. In one corner, a boy kitted out in new uniform and accompanied by anxious parents is welcomed to his first day, late in the summer term. In another, two women sit stoically with just-purchased sports kit on their laps, apparently unwilling to depart. Outside, on White Hart Lane itself, home to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, sirens are screaming.

These days this hectic image reflects a lively educational ethos, but emergency is probably not too strong a word for the school's state just two years ago. Condemned by Ofsted, White Hart Lane, in one of London's most deprived and ethnically diverse boroughs, was struggling to make any meaningful impact on the lives of its students. All too many of them saw school as a place for fighting or anti-social behaviour that took the number of fixed-term exclusions to more than 350 a year. The feeling of a school on the ropes was reflected in exam results, with only one in 10 pupils gaining five or more good GCSE passes in 2001.

White Hart Lane's turnaround has been dramatic. Its spectacular improvement in exam results - 25 per cent gained at least five A*-C grades this year - and recent emergence from Ofsted's "serious weaknesses" are part of a bigger story in a school that offers, on top of education, resettlement, counselling and induction to life in Britain.

Eighty-three per cent of the children here are learning English as a second language, two out of three are entitled to free school meals and many are refugees. The 1,140 pupils speak 64 languages between them and, unusually, almost as many languages are spoken in the staffroom. Teachers from India, Zimbabwe, Spain, Swaziland and other countries have joined British-trained colleagues in a standards-raising drive that consumes the school.

Staff shortages afflict all London schools, especially the most challenging ones. But here, headteacher David Daniels, in post since Easter 2001, has turned necessity into a virtue. In his refurbished office he outlines "the wicked plot to raise all sorts of aspirations". Charged with addressing everything from behaviour and attainment to leadership, management and the budget, he came in to lead an entirely new senior management team after Ofsted failed the school in March 2000. But after the most recent inspection, in April this year, Ofsted reported that White Hart Lane no longer had the serious weaknesses in evidence two years ago. "The school is inclusive and harmonious," it said, "with good behaviour, relationships and respect for others. Students are now progressing satisfactorily as a result of teaching that is good overall." Mr Daniels's satisfaction is palpable. "I'm captivated by the school. It's my life," he says.

Many factors have contributed to the turnaround at White Hart Lane, not least the use of overseas-trained teachers, who are regarded not as stopgaps but as assets. "We already had a large cadre of teachers from other countries," says Mr Daniels. "Last year, with 20 people leaving, we had to do something. We've picked up some very good staff who have been trained overseas, often with considerable experience, and gone heavily into classroom management. They're not second best; we wouldn't take them if they were. Actually, for a school like this, white English teachers are not necessarily the best, linguistically or in terms of role models."

This summer only five teachers moved on, and their jobs are already filled. Three recruits are from South Africa, Swaziland and Turkey, and two are from Britain. "These days staffing is the least of my worries," says Mr Daniels, surveying the site where a pound;5 million refit means builders will be on the premises for at least another year.

Some overseas-trained teachers have been recruited through agencies and word of mouth, while others have applied directly to the school. There are people here from France, Italy, Turkey, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and many African countries, and the school is scouting for an Albanian-speaking teacher to join its Albanian-speaking mentor. A "good working knowledge" of English is a prerequisite, as is a realistic idea of life in an inner-city comprehensive. "We only take them if we know they will cope," says Mr Daniels. "It's unfair to lead people down the garden path."

As a "spare-time" Ofsted inspector himself - "I do it for my own professional development, to see how other schools run" - David Daniels is used to assessing teachers. He acknowledges that there can be problems with overseas-trained teachers, especially those from developing countries. "Many are used to a stereotypical approach, a didactic delivery, standing at the front of the class," he says. "We decided early on that if we were to have this kind of input, it had to be managed properly."

Certainly, several of the overseas-trained staff at White Hart Lane report bad experiences at other London schools. But in-school support makes all the difference. Minakshi Dogra, 27, trained as a science teacher in Indian Kashmir after graduating with a BSc in medical sciences from Jammu University. She came to join her husband here and began supply teaching in London in May 2001. "The behaviour was tough," she says of her first school in Hackney. "And they were quite tall, big boys. I'm a confident person but you have to have that limit."

Ms Dogra worked in 10 schools before she joined White Hart Lane last September. "I decided to stay here. It was calmer, and I felt I could get hold of the kids educationally. When they offered me a contract, I thought, 'Oh, brilliant - I love this school anyway.' The staff are co-operative and supportive, and even when I was here as a supply teacher I made friends. In some schools, if you're overseas-trained they don't talk to you." Ms Dogra's mother is a headteacher, and she has children of Indian origin among her students. "They ask questions about my culture," she says. "They're very interested and keen to learn about the schools there, and the life."

With two years' experience of secondary teaching in Kashmir, Ms Dogra is now part of the school's graduate teacher programme and is undergoing in-service training that will help her attain qualified teacher status. Overseen and accredited by Middlesex University, the training is co-ordinated by Fusun Dedezade, a Turkish-language teacher who is also a training manager at the school. At the moment, six overseas-trained teachers - from Turkey, India, the Caribbean, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Australia - are in the graduate teacher programme, with several more set to join this autumn. Several British graduates are also on the programme.

Ms Dedezade, 45, can empathise with newly arrived students and overseas-trained teachers. She came from England from Cyprus aged eight. "I grew up feeling almost ashamed of my language, history and culture," she says. "My father lost his profession. In those days, you had no support, which is why I'm interested in students here who come as refugees." Her husband, Kelami, has recently begun teaching science classes in Turkish for potential high achievers in Year 10. Eighteen students attend the thrice-weekly classes.

"They feel good learning in two languages," says Ms Dedezade. "The idea is to raise achievement." She quotes a Turkish saying that illustrates how parents in that country see the influence of school: "The bone is ours, but the meat is yours." This summer 26 of her GCSE students gained A*s in Turkish; another 27 won As, Bs and Cs and none of the 63 students entered was ungraded. Last year's scores were nearly as good and inspectors have commended such remarkable results.

All overseas teachers on the programme have mentors. Minakshi Dogra is mentored by Gabriella Nocivelli, the school's PSHE co-ordinator, who observes her teaching every three weeks. Ms Nocivelli says of overseas teachers: "Like some of our students, they come with a different set of expectations. The settling-in period is important for them, and so is the support they get." Ms Dogra is about to have the last of 12 observations. "Her lessons were difficult at first," says Ms Nocivelli. "She was used to different styles of behaviour. Now, the class is responding - they listen, she's got control, the instructions are clear. It's lovely to see that after a year she has this class where she wants them."

Ms Nocivelli admits that some established staff had reservations about recruiting so many foreign teachers, especially as some had no experience of teaching anywhere. "It seemed a lot to put on them, being on full timetables," she says. But new leadership and the graduate teacher programme are working. "Morale is good," she says. "For the first time in a long while, it's feeling positive."

David Daniels is used to maximising assets, especially with his foundation school background. His previous job was at Enfield grammar school, which dates from 1548 and has traditions to match. "I ran everything, from cleaners and cooks to teachers," he says. "That's the kind of approach I bring - and ways of working around the latest dogmatic instruction." The pound;5 million being invested in new buildings and refurbishment at White Hart Lane is part of a private finance initiative deal struck by Haringey LEA, now run by a private company, Capita.

Discipline and harmony have come thanks to a range of measures, from the mechanical - CCTV and fencing, for example, have cut down on vandalism and intruder violence - to the finer details of school policy and management. Mr Daniels has introduced Saturday morning enrichment classes (as well as Saturday detentions); pupils must stand up when he enters the room, and he has outlawed baseball caps. "You deal with the little things, the minutiae of control," he says. "Kids here are great and very able, but face language barriers to the curriculum."

The number of fixed-term exclusions has fallen from 350-plus per year to 45 in 2001-02. Mr Daniels "can't remember" the last major fight. Careful management of new teachers and changes to the ethos of the school have helped to create stability. "People are now happy to be here," says Mr Daniels. "The place has changed dramatically." When White Hart Lane came out of serious weaknesses, the head went to the staffroom to inform his polyglot team. "You could have heard the cheer in Westminster," he says.

And last week's GCSE results have brought another big boost: the 25 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-Cs easily surpassed the head's target of 18 per cent. "My staff are glowing with success and are so proud of the pupils, who have gone way beyond our wildest expectations," says Mr Daniels.

Among the success stories at White Hart Lane is Caasho Saciid, who achieved 10 GCSEs, five of them at A* grade, a remarkable achievement for a girl who left Somalia just five years ago with only a minimal understanding of English.

Always ahead of the game, Mr Daniels is concerned to make sure that the school does not become a victim of its own success. Given its challenging circumstances, he expected to be one of the 1,400 schools in line for pound;125,000 of new government money announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown in July's public spending review. "There's no detail yet, but I would be cross to find our meteoric success meant that we lost access to that money," he says.

MAXIMUM RESPECT

Tichawona Muyambo (pictured) came to London last September from Zimbabwe, equipped with several years' teaching experience and a desire to further his career. "I wanted the experience of teaching in a different set-up, in the First World," he says. Trained at Mutare teachers' college, "Tich", 28, also had a BA with education from Africa University, Mutare, south-east of Harare, where he specialised in English and history.

Working for an agency, his first English school was a comprehensive in Mitcham, south London. "It was a whole new scenario," he says. "Fun, but a bit challenging, especially the behaviour. In Mutare, compared to the schools here, it's as if you're in heaven. The learning culture at home is way different because education is the only way out of poverty, the only way to life. Here they don't see it the same way. Some students are extremely serious, but some are not at all concerned."

Tich began working at White Hart Lane in January this year and was offered a one-year contract in June. He is now taking part in the graduate teacher programme at the school and likely to gain qualified teacher status. "I didn't learn anything curriculum-wise until I came here," he says. "In other schools, I was just a body in the classroom. Colleagues here are really helpful. They've actually accepted that you come from a different set-up and are always willing to walk you through things.

"We have a big African and African-Caribbean pupil population here, and seeing a person who is like them means that sometimes they are influenced or touched by you. With all of them you share some of your experience - I enjoy doing that. The more they realise you are staying, the more they respect you and have confidence in you and treat you like family. I'm not yet teaching as well here as at home - there's still work to do - but I'll get there."

Tich expects to stay in Britain for several years and perhaps acquire a further degree before returning to Zimbabwe, where prospects are uncertain. "Teaching is a low-status job in Zimbabwe," he says. "The pay is so meagre, you can't do anything with it. There's even a saying, 'If you want to die poor, be a teacher.'"

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