IF YOU want a simple formula for raising standards in inner-city schools, then don't ask Alisdair Macdonald. "There's a danger in thinking that there is one answer to improving schools," he says.
"You can look at what other people do but you have to work with your staff to find out what will work in your school. We still teach mixed ability - that works for us, although I wouldn't advocate it for everybody."
Mr Macdonald was one of a group of headteachers invited to Downing Street to share their views with Tony Blair earlier this week. He is head of Morpeth school in London's poorest borough, Tower Hamlets, one of 41 schools praised for improvement in the chief inspector's annual report.
The number of pupils gaining five or more A-C grades at GCSE has increased from 11 per cent when the school was first inspected, to 40 per cent in 1997 - a remarkable achievement given that over 75 per cent of pupils receive free school meals and more than half speak English as a second language.
What is the secret of the school's success? "We've had a two-pronged attack," explains Mr Macdonald. "On the one hand we've concentrated on teaching and learning; the second strand is school culture."
He believes that the non-pressurised, collegiate ethos of the school is vital in raising standards, and that while poverty is a barrier to achievement, it cannot be an excuse for failure. To help pupils over that barrier he started after-school clubs - attendance is running at a healthy 75 per cent.
But staff at Morpeth won't be resting on their laurels - thenumber of pupils achieving top-grade GCSEs last year fell to 29 per cent. "We are not saying we've cracked it. Improvement in Tower Hamlets is a fragile thing, more so than in suburban areas," says Mr Macdonald.