A vision of years to come
The past is another country, and it's a place headteacher Paul Regan encourages his staff to avoid. The old ways of doing things just will not do. For instance, he says: "Teachers here are not allowed to shout at children. "If I come across it, I ask, 'Have you got some nostalgia?' That's why I like young teachers - they don't have it."
In the London borough of Newham, surrounded by humble Victorian terraces sliced through by traffic-choked arterial roads, a new school is being midwifed into existence. Kingsford community school - set up by the borough in response to a shortage of places - now has 300 Year 7 pupils who are well into their second term. The temporary accommodation (in what used to be Woodside school) is freshly painted and warm. Staff are fresh-faced; pupils, in their sober navy sweatshirts, still have vestiges of that awe for big school.
Why, for instance, did 12-year-old Luke Jolly turn up at 7.30am on the day of The TES visit? "Because I'm excited by school," he says, barely glancing from his computer screen. Luke is busy setting up a Hotmail address at the pre-school computer club, and emailing his friend Craig Bernstein on the other side of the room.
Paul Regan is keen to forge a new culture for the school, and leads by example. "We manage each day proactively," he says. "In future years, the ethos of good behaviour and love of learning will trickle down." This time last year, however, Kingsford consisted of little more than Paul Regan and a hastily concocted vision statement. The statement was bashed out in four days in response to a phone call from Newham's then director of education, Ian Harrison, but the vision has evolved over many years' teaching experience.
Formerly deputy principal at the Djanogly city technology college, Nottingham, Mr Regan, aged "forty-something", also has experience of teaching in a comprehensive, a grammar school and a sixth-form college. The vision at Kingsford is a fusion of "the best I've seen in schools around the world", with CTC predominant. "I soaked up the CTC ethos," he says. "I'm a great believer in it, and it's been very influential."
Most obvious of the differences at Kingsford is the extended school day. The school opens at 7am, with the dining room offering breakfast. Computer clubs, supervised by teachers, are on offer from 7.30am. Staggered lunchtimes give children half-an-hour to eat and half-an-hour in a tutor group activity. After school, children can take part in sports clubs, singing or French classes - all run by teachers. The "core day" - 8.30am to 3.30pm - is divided into three two-hour teaching blocks, which include supervised break times taken with the teacher.
"I made a lot of promises to parents," says Paul Regan, "from breakfast at 7am, to the best teachers and a new kind of day. I said we would look after the children in the sense that they're never unsupervised. It's an ethos I want to keep - of instigating a sense of responsibility towards each other and for their own behaviour." The damped-down atmosphere that results is entirely to his satisfaction. "The only excitement I want is what is going on in the classroom," he says.
The corollary of constant supervision is, of course, that staff are never off duty. They have break-time coffee with children, eat lunch in the dining room with their tutor groups and take turns running before and after-school activities, for which they are paid extra. But the staff at Kingsford - like the parents - signed up for the vision. "Some of the pupils don't have that sort of contact at home with adults," says art teacher Alison Howard. "They can't believe that we actually want to sit down and chat to them, and find out what they did at the weekend. But that's when you get to know and understand them."
Children seem to like it. Raki Begum, aged 12, has six brothers, one sister and three sisters-in-law at home. She comes to school at 7.30am most days. "I can catch up on my homework, meet my friends and have some fun in Skantec (an information and communication technology skills programme developed with a local robotics firm).
"I also have some toast and hot coffee. My parents think it's quite a nice idea because I usually don't eat before I get out of the house."
Kingsford has dispensed with the bells that mark out the school day elsewhere. Raki says: "It's made us more organised and everybody is calm. I'm getting used to the idea, so I've stopped putting my alarm clock on at home. I instinctively wake up at 6.30am."
Another feature of Kingsford is the introduction of all students to Mandarin Chinese. In an upstairs classroom, teacher Linying Liu is getting children to identify their favourite colour using the language. This reflects Paul Regan's personal interest in China - he has made 10 visits to the country - and his commitment to giving students what he calls "the edge". He says: "They need English, but they also need another world language. In five years' time, Mandarin will be used more on the internet than English."
Paul Regan was appointed in January 2000 and took up his post in May. Although concerned with the difficulties of recruiting staff to a school not yet in existence, he sent out a copy of the vision statement with every application pack and received a good response.
Several of the staff at Kingsford - including geography teacher Melany Nelson and newly qualified art teacher Alison Howard - grew up locally, and are keen to contribute to the area's regeneration. "I'm the first person in my family to go to university and I want to encourage the children to believe that anything's possible," says Alison Howard. "We've got some very talented and clever children. Even though we've only been here a few months, parents have already told us that they've never had the opportunities their children have had."
Others, such as assistant head Joan Deslandes, were attracted by the prospect of doing things differently. "I've been in schools that didn't have a vision," she says. "Here the vision leads everything we do, and it's an exciting one that caters for those who are gifted and those who are disadvantaged. We view students as individuals and don't allow ourselves to be restricted by the way things have been done in the past."
Kingsford promises four "services" to students; the first is guaranteed mastery of the "core skills essential to all other learning". The others are success for all, moral guidance and advice about learning. But can any school really guarantee outcomes? "I never doubt for one minute that this will succeed," says Paul Regan. "There is a lot of underachievement in schools."
Students at Kingsford will be able to take maths GCSE early and may, in the future, even aim for ICT GCSEs as early as Year 8, he says. "The point is to stretch them. We don't want to hold them up in any way. High expectations are the ethos. I stress that every day."
With 60 per cent of children on free school meals, 40 languages represented and almost one student in four a refugee, Kingsford pupils pose a considerable educational challenge. The tight routines and planning (staff have to put their lesson plans on the school's intranet at the start of term) can go some way towards compensating for the uncertain world some students face outside school. ICT is a major focus across the curriculum, and a high adult-child ratio (a 20-strong staff team supplemented by six assistants) makes individual attention possible .
Staff at Kingsford must put in long hours and give a lot of themselves. "I came here ready for that, because it looked like a positive way forward for inner-city students," says Joan Deslandes. "It's not only a school, it's a bit like a family. So many of them express the appreciation that we're here for them."
Certainly, the first intake of students has responded well to the mixture of teaching and intensive care on offer. They appreciate the head's commitment to preventing bullying ("even if they just cuss your mum it goes straight to Mr Regan and he phones their parents," says Nadia Drissi) and their relationships with teachers. "They welcome you and they're funny to you in the mornings. You can't give your parents the excuse that the teachers are horrible so you don't want to come to school," Nadia elaborates.
The first hurdle - attracting students to the unknown school - has been successfully overcome. Kingsford has reached its 300-pupil capacity - since Christmas 10 new pupils have filled the last few places - and the head expects the school to be oversubscribed for the coming autumn. And with a growing pupil population in Newham, he is confident of having 1,500 11 to 16-year-old students on roll by 2004. "I've appealed to the hearts and minds of parents," says Mr Regan.
The purpose-built school will be three miles to the south-west of the current site. It is going up under Newham's first Private Finance Initiative deal, in which one secondary and two primaries are being built to a budget of pound;45 million, courtesy of the insurance firm Norwich Union. Work has yet to start, although the school should be ready for occupation by July 2002. But Paul Regan, continually optimistic, turns this into a plus: "What's important is the ethos and the relationships," he says. "Here, we've got this pretty awful building, but what we're putting inside it, in terms of ethos, is like gold."
He says the local education authority also supports the vision, despite its CTC genesis. "I believe the authority is open. It wants to raise the game." Newham has spent pound;585,000 on start-up costs, plus pound;1.2 million on "remediation" - cleaning toxic industrial waste from the land on which the current accommodation stands. What about the relationship with fellow Newham heads? "It's okay," he says.
Newham as a borough has suffered the indignity of watching its docks being developed into Docklands - a shiny new world of work that has been largely out of reach for local residents. Kingsford aims to change that. The school is making links with local companies ("I don't ask them to to take paired reading, but to help our pupils understand how industry and business work," says Mr Regan), exploring Docklands' past and present through a cross-curricular project, and trying to bridge the two worlds for the next generation. "Students have wonderful opportunities on their doorstep," he says. "We will make them ready and bridge the skills gap. Companies want to employ local children."