Martin Whittaker reports on an educational oasis just off murder mile
Name: Clapton girls' technology college
School type: 11-16 comprehensive.
Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 53 per cent
Improved results: up from 34 per cent of pupils achieving five or more grade A*-C at GCSE in 2002, to 50 per cent in 2003.
In the grounds of Clapton girls' technology college all is calm. Trees are in blossom, birds are singing and the only other sound is the occasional teacher's voice through an open window.
"It's like an oasis," says head- teacher Cheryl Day as she strolls around the London school's huge campus during lessons. "You wouldn't think you were in Hackney." Yet this is just a stone's throw from the bustle of Lower Clapton Road, dubbed the murder mile - a stretch of road that has become notorious for violent crime.
This setting seems to mirror the school's recent history. Its biggest challenge has been living with the image of the borough, which Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector, once described as the worst in Britain.
"Every time Hackney was in the press negatively, things were harder in Hackney schools," she says. Yet she says throughout the borough's troubles, this has remained a good school. "We have been improving despite what's gone on."
Clapton girls' is an 11-16 comprehensive with around 900 students. It serves an area with very high unemployment and low literacy levels.
More than half its students are eligible for free school meals, and just under a third have special educational needs. Its population is a huge and diverse mixture. More than 50 languages are spoken and 70 per cent of students have English as an additional language. And the school has a high student mobility rate: on average 75 students will leave and be replaced in an academic year.
But what really sets the school apart is the progress its students make given these statistics. The average attainment on entry to Year 7 is very low, but by the age of 16 the average GCSE point score is high compared with similar schools. Last year 50 per cent of its pupils gained five or more grades A* to C at GCSE, compared to 34 per cent in 2002. Its value-added score - 105.5 in 2003 - is among the top 5 per cent nationally.
The school won a Department for Education and Skills school achievement award in 2003 and it has just become a member of the Specialist Schools Trust's "most improved" club.
It has reaped a crop of awards from The Learning Trust, the not-for-profit company that now runs Hackney's education services. It won awards for most improved secondary, deputy head Judy Miln won teacher of the year and chair of governors Jane Franklin won governor of the year.
During a visit last year education minister Ivan Lewis described Clapton as "an excellent example of a specialist school making a real difference in a tough inner-city area".
So how does the school do it? "We suddenly got the combination right," says Cheryl Day. "It was the focus on high-quality learning and additional support for learning. It suddenly fell into place and worked. One and one added to more than two."
Cheryl Day has been at the school for 14 years, and headteacher for seven.
One of her contributions has been to focus on improving teaching and learning and to strengthen continuous professional development.
She says that after the teacher recruitment crisis of two years ago, the school now manages to catch and keep good teachers through investing in them and making them feel valued. "Over a long period of time we have had challenges with recruitment, but now people want to teach here and want to stay here. We have a very thorough induction and support programme that is attractive to teachers.
"We do a lot of work on what makes a good lesson, and coach each other, learn from each other and watch each other."
Staff have worked hard to develop a culture of high expectation among its students. Measures include arranging placements on university summer schools for Year 11s, and talks from ex-pupils who have made it from Hackney to Oxford and Cambridge. The school also started breakfast clubs giving pupils access to computers and the library, as well as Saturday morning revision classes.
Cheryl Day has been very keen to open up the school to parents. Just off the main reception desk is a "community room", festooned with displays about the school's achievements, as well as details of adult learning classes.
Some of the staff come from the same ethnic groups as their students, and many speak additional languages, making it easier to build relationships with parents. "We have done it by a lot of hard work by a lot of people, including the students and governors, but primarily some very dedicated and committed staff," says Cheryl Day.
Five years ago Ofsted said the school's governing body was "not effective in meeting their statutory roles of strategic leadership, in monitoring standards or in providing information to parents."
Has this improved? Chair of governors Jane Franklin says political divisions that once plagued the governing body are long gone. The arrival of new blood since the last inspection coupled with more training has fostered teamwork.
Governors are now more involved in the life of the school, attending functions or sitting in on classes. Staff have even given them mini lessons so they can sample their teaching.
"What we're trying to do is to support the head and staff by becoming more knowledgeable about the school, so that we can then have discussions to say where are we going and how are we going to get there," she says.