Case study: Tower Hamlets

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Morpeth school is in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the LEA with the highest level of poverty in the country as measured by free school meals. Almost 70 per cent of our pupils fall into this category. Last year, the authority was also the fastest improving LEA at GCSE, and four of its schools, including Morpeth, were in the top 10 schools for value added between key stage 3 and 4. It is, therefore, tempting to think that although we may not have overcome the impact of poverty, we are making major inroads. But there is danger in such a simplistic analysis.

Poverty is not simply a matter of free school meals; poverty of aspiration and poverty of opportunity also have an impact. Our location gives our pupils advantages that others in schools with high levels of poverty do not have. We are one Tube stop from the City of London and, like many Tower Hamlets schools, have benefited from partnerships with large companies or financial institutions. Almost 80 pupils have a business mentor and we have a partnership with the Barbican arts centre, links with the National Theatre and English National Opera; our pupils can visit Tate Modern, the Science Museum and all the other galleries and museums of central London.

The emphasis in almost all government strategy over the past few years in raising achievement has been on improving the quality of teaching and learning, which is undoubtedly important. However, talk to heads and teachers in schools facing challenging circumstances, and you will almost always hear discussion on "school culture", particularly in terms of low aspirations. A critical mass of pupils who "buy into" the aims of the school and what it stands for is crucial. There is no great tradition of the community identifying with schools and education here, but many families and pupils in our ethnically diverse community want to achieve - and believe they can.

Teachers can attempt to change school culture, but it is difficult when the critical mass has low aspirations. When, seven years ago, we started to run extra lessons before school, after school, on Saturdays, initially it was pupils from ethnic minorities who attended. The same pupils came forward when we organised visits to universities, a pattern repeated across a range of initiatives. Participation now more accurately reflects the ethnicity of our intake, but in those early days having that critical mass with higher aspirations was important.

Excellence in Cities, the pupil retention grant and, most recently, pupil learning credits - which the Government introduced for two years in schools with more than 50 per cent of pupils on free school meals - have also given us the resources to enrich the basic curriculum. The credits - which have few strings attached - come through the Standards Fund and have meant an extra pound;150,000 a year for us. Our extracurricular activities now include: additional music tuition - more than 200 pupils learn an instrument; trips overseas; residentials in this country, including a poetry week in Yorkshire, GCSE science revision in Suffolk and outdoor education for all Year 8s; revision classes before and after school, on Saturdays and during holidays.

All of this - and much more - has helped to make Morpeth somewhere that pupils want to be because exciting things happen. But we know that many schools who would welcome such support do not receive these extra resources.

And just at the point when we were starting to embed the change in culture that this funding made possible, much of it has been withdrawn, notably the pupil learning credits. Addressing poverty is not a quick fix. Enabling pupils to overcome the effects of poverty and raising their achievement is not just about resources, but it helps.

Alasdair Macdonald is head of Morpeth school, London borough of Tower Hamlets

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