When one child in three lives in poverty, what can schools do to raise expectations? In Portsmouth, primary head Colin Harris is determined his pupils will fulfil their potential. Stephanie Northen reports
Colin Harris is bossy. He admits it. He waves a bar chart taken from a recent training course for headteachers. It shows he is "coercive". "I'll tell you what to do," he says. But he is also "affiliative". "I'll put my arm around you - then tell you what to do."
Mr Harris tells the 400 pupils of Warren Park primary what to do; he even tells them what to think. He tells them they will succeed. (And he gives them cuddles.) Growing up amid the flat-roofed maisonettes and broken fences of a huge council estate to the north of Portsmouth - the most deprived county ward in Hampshire - it will not be easy to cheat fate. Half of the estate's residents are on income support. More than half of Harris's pupils have special needs and 40 per cent claim free school meals. Most would number among the 4 million children growing up poor in the UK - an appalling legacy of the last government underlined by this month's report from the United Nations' children's fund in which Britain comes 20th out of 23 nations in a league table of child poverty.
Early deprivation is still the strongest indicator of an adult life dogged by ill-health, debt, depression, and disaffection. Colin Harris - like the present Government, which has vowed to eradicate child poverty within 20 years - believes children can break out of the vicious circle.
Mr Harris says their success depends on them believing in themselves. "We are generating in these children a desire to achieve, something most of us got from our parents. The school fills a space in their lives, it satisfies a need." It is a need he can probably relate to: the son of a stoker on transatlantic boats, he had a "tough start" as one of seven brothers growing up on a council estate in nearby Portchester.
Mr Harris, now 42, acknowledges that he is driven by the need to achieve. He tells his pupils constantly - and they tell him - that they "go to the best school in the world". This is not macho management. ("Do you love me, Mr Harris?" calls out one boy as they pass each other in a corridor.) It is not competitive. It is the vision.
When he took over five years ago, Warren Park was far from the best anything. Now it has the inspectors purring. Colin Harris has been personally congratulated by the Prince of Wales and his school is the focus of a community that only existed on a map before. Last year's key stage 2 test results tell the story. Three-quarters of Warren Park's 11-year-olds achieved level 4 in English, 72 per cent in maths, and 89 per cent in science. These results, which exceed national averages in all three subjects, have been achieved by children who start school with skills far below average.
They turn up with a lot of baggage though. Most impoverished youngsters suffer from lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Warren Park, and schools like it, face the problem that children "learn to be poor", according to 1998 research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They realise early on that their parents cannot afford as much as others, which "leads them to scale down their hopes and aspirations". They aim for jobs that require no qualifications, or little training - if they aim for jobs at all. Colin Harris's "best school in the world" challenges this state of mind.
Naomi Eisenstadt, who runs the Government's Sure Start programme, would applaud. A priority for her pound;400 million initiative aimed at families with children under four is to ensure that the poorest areas no longer have the worst services. "Stigma is created by having services that people think identify them as bad parents. You avoid stigma by making the services so good that middle-class families want to use them."
Warren Park is now oversubscribed. It is also, Mr Harris insists, "normal". OK, there is severe deprivation. And yes, there are cases of child abuse, of battered mothers, of drugs, of violence. But once the children come through the door they enter a "normal" environment where normal things are expected of them.
One of these is good behaviour. According to Naomi Eisenstadt: "Young children need a consistent approach to discipline - not over-indulging, or over-punishing. But to do that you need the time to explain things to your children, which also develops their language. If you're depressed, if you're worried that you are about to be evicted, finding the time to have those discussions is so much more difficult."
Another head, who does not want to be named, talks of having to develop parents' skills. "No one says 'no' to the children - or if they do, they don't mean it - we have children who are out of their parents' control at age four." At Warren Park the ethos is one of tough love (and cuddles.) Pupils are free to express themselves, but they are under control. They know they get "done" for doing something wrong so they accept it. No child has been excluded for four years.
When Colin Harris started, he had the school redecorated, and it still feels like new. To develop the children's sense of belonging, he colour-coded the classrooms. To encourage their sense of being valued he spent pound;24,000 on the toilets - "because these things matter".
For the millennium he bought 400 sweatshirts emblazoned with the words "Warren Park". All the certificates and rewards the pupils are given also carry the school's name. Corporate identity? "Absolutely" - one that is saying "Hey, you can be proudof this".
Mr Harris has set up a breakfast club and an after-school club. He wants a nursery "because the quicker I get them the better". There are children on the premises from 7am until 6pm every day. They have discos, they go bowling, they go skating, they have sleep-overs - all organised through the school. In other words, they do all the things normal children do. And do them happily and confidently. They also do their homework - or they and their parents are in trouble.
For schools in deprived areas, parents are often the key. They have to back up their children's efforts. Maureen Reynolds, head of Five Elms primary in Barking and Dagenham, a London borough that has been working on raising parental expectations, says: "You must remember that parents have a hard time and not judge them. I sometimes tell them their child could go to university and they look at me in amazement. 'But no one from my family has gone to university'." Colin Harris and Naomi Eisenstadt condemn the culture that blames families for being poor. "It makes me angry," says Ms Eisenstadt, "Being a good parent is much harder when you are poor."
Before Colin Harris arrived at Warren Park, the tendency was to shut parents out. "I went against the grain," he says. "I said 'Open the gates, I want them all in.' I want the confrontation, because every confrontation gives me a chance to put my message across."
And the message is "You shall not let your children down". Proof of the distance he and they have travelled came about 18 months ago. Five parents came to see a classroom teacher. Their problem? They wanted advice on how to support their children now their children knew more than they did.
And what of the staff? Mr Harris remembers his first staff meeting. "I told them you can say what you like about me, but I won't have you running my school down." A few left, and he assembled the team "that now leads me as much as I lead them".
Feelings of unfairness can warp adults as much as children, so Mr Harris works to ensure that "all the classrooms are the same". The teachers have access to the same resources and the same support. "My staff are second to none," he says, "but achieving standards is not all about quality teaching. You can have quality teachers who don't pull together as a team in a collegiate approach, so children get taught in a different way from one year to the next."
Warren Park is a success story, but one that Colin Harris insists is not just down to his personality. "It's not about me, it's about harnessing all the elements. Any boring old fart could have done what I have done."
Whether an old fart would have emulated Mr Harris's style in harnessing or "joining up" the other agencies that work with the school is doubtful. "We love the paperwork," he says ironically. "Who does it in reality? I do. If I say something, social services does it."
A key weapon in New Labour's struggle for a more inclusive society, joined-up-ness is, according to Ms Eisenstadt, what the best people at local level have always done anyway. "But they have had to do it by stealth, which is what we want to change."
Colin Harris has a warning for the Government not to push schools such as Warren Park too far. Many of his pupils will leave with an attitude that will carry them through to further education, but "the Government has to remember how far we have to travel before we get to what are the starting gates for most schools". While the school's 1998 Ofsted inspection report was glowing, it did keep coming back to standards.
"I am happy to be judged by my results as long as someone is backing me up and saying we know you are doing as well as you can. I will get my kids to fulfil their potential. But there is a correlation between results and geographical area. You don't need a PhD to understand that, but it is not sufficiently acknowledged.
"Support through the back door would be appreciated. Not just the formal front-door check-ups. My staff will leave if they work their socks off and don't get the recognition they deserve." Schools and staff can peak and burn out, he says. "And I'd like to be at my peak for the next 20 years."
THE SPREAD OF POVERTY
* In 1979 five million British people lived in poverty. Twenty years later, the number had trebled to 14 million. Inequality had grown faster than in any other western nation.
* The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that in 1997-98 4.4 million children were growing up in families living below the poverty line - defined by most commentators as below half the national average income after housing costs. This is equivalent to one child in three. These children are 20 per cent more likely to be born underweight than those of more prosperous families. They are also twice as likely to die in an accident.
* This month's Unicef report, Child Poverty in Rich Nations, places the UK 20th out of 23 in a league table of child poverty in wealthier countries - only Italy, the US and Mexico have higher proportions of deprived youngsters.
* The UK's Child Poverty Action Group and Unicef agree that action taken by Labour is starting to make a difference. By 2001, CPAG estimates that 1.2 million children will have been lifted out of poverty.
* Anna Wright, author of the Unicef report, says most of the serious problems facing today's advanced industrialised nations have their roots in the denial and deprivation that mark the childhoods of so many of their future citizens. She and other commentators point to a general lack of awareness about the problem in the UK.