Case study: Oaklands school, Tower Hamlets, London

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Ours is a small school of 600 students, so there's a family feel about the place and teachers get to know the children well. We're on a compact site, which brings its own pressures, but it does mean it's hard for students to get away with bad behaviour. These factors create an environment in which children from challenging backgrounds can feel comfortable, and where it's easy for us to support anyone with problems.

White children are in a minority at Oaklands, but they generally achieve well. It's a common generalisation to suggest that Asian children are harder working than white working-class children, and their families more supportive. Older Bengali boys can be just as challenging as white working-class boys; they often have a great deal of independence at home.

Another stereotype is that Asian children are keen to learn and put a high value on education, but that isn't always the case. Third-generation immigrants don't necessarily have the same values as their grandparents.

The kind of detailed performance data we have access to nowadays is incredibly valuable. Now we can deal with the reality, rather than the myths. It might be that a group of white working-class boys in Year 10 is underperforming, or a small number of Bengali girls in Year 8. We can watch for trends developing, work out why they are happening, and then decide on a course of action. You have to be innovative. If you do what you always do, then you get what you always get.

Our staff have high expectations of all children, regardless of their family situation or whether English is their first language. I certainly don't consider poverty to be an excuse for failure. At the same time, you have to be realistic. Children from working-class backgrounds don't necessarily have access to new technology. Once I was walking down a street with a group of children, and a girl looked through the window of a house and said, "Those people are really rich." I was puzzled because there wasn't a flash car in the drive or any other obvious indicator of wealth.

When I asked why she thought they were rich she said, "They've got lots of books". That has stayed with me as a reminder that children from working-class backgrounds don't always have the resources that some middle-class children take for granted.

A lot of working-class children know that education is the best way forward, but it can be difficult if they have seen other members of their family become successful without qualifications. For instance, we have children whose families have done well out of working in the construction industry. I make it clear to pupils that they need to get their five A-Cs, because that's the standard that's required. But I don't want them to think that because their dad or uncle doesn't have any GCSEs, I'm being critical of their family.

I try to explain that if they get their five A-Cs then it will give them more options. But it's understandable if working-class children sometimes lack ambition. I remember one girl who wanted to leave school before her GCSEs because she'd been offered a full-time job at a hairdressers. She was under pressure from the employer, who wasn't willing to hold the job open until the summer. I tried to point out that qualifications might be useful in the future, if she changed her mind about hairdressing or wanted her own business, but all she could see was a job that was going to pay money and give her independence. Whenever I catch a taxi around here, the cabbies always go on about how the East End has lost its spirit of family and kinship. I'm not sure if that's true, but you do get a sense that people are defending their territory and identity. On the street, white teenage boys in particular seem to feel a need to find their own patches, their own groups. I sometimes see squares with St George's flags flying.

Understanding the social context of your school and how it fits into the community is valuable, and gives you an insight into why children have particular values or attitudes. But it's critically important that teachers expect all children to achieve, whatever their race or background.

Patrice Canavan is headteacher of Oaklands secondary school, Tower Hamlets, London. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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