Marlene Robottom was a superhead long before the term was invented. Now her achievements as head of a high-scoring school at the heart of one of Britain's poorest communities have been recognised with a gong in the new year's honours list - much to her surprise. Wendy Wallace met her.
When education's newest Dame, Marlene Robottom of Mulberry school in east London, says she likes to go to concerts in her spare time, I immediately think of chamber music, quartets, a little Chopin. Swallowed up by her leather swivel chair, Miss Robottom wears a fuchsia coat jacket with matching skirt, and jewellery best described as restrained. Pencilled eyebrows, white tights, shiny black courts to give herself height - nothing about her suggests a passion for Eric Clapton. But with Dame Marlene, what you see is not exactly what you get.
Few people involved with education in the London borough of Tower Hamlets can have been that surprised when Marlene Robottom's name appeared on the new year's honours list. Her girls' school has repeatedly been held up as a light in the darkness in recent years, as its pupils have gone on to Oxford and Cambridge, got high-powered jobs and passed GCSEs with high grades in gratifyingly large numbers. In a borough where poverty continues to blight the lives of the largely Bangladeshi community and where the cheapest heroin in Britain casts a shadow over the futures of many young people, the 1,370-pupil comprehensive is a success story. And then there's the fact that both previous heads had been similarly honoured: Mulberry's first head, Doris Jarvis, was made a CBE, while her successor, Daphne Gould, was an OBE.
Marlene Robottom was amazed, however. "Part of me doesn't believe it's happened," she says. "I think it's the level of the honour." She heard the news in November, after a Friday evening headteachers' meeting. "I had a lot of work to do that weekend and I couldn't get on with it," she says. "You think, why me? There's such a lot of good work going on in all sectors."
Tower Hamlets is often described as "vibrant", and you feel that in Miss Robottom's office. The sounds of piano practice tinkle pleasantly up through the floor, mingling with the sound of pneumatic drills beyond the school boundaries and the whir of the air ambulance coming in to land on the roof of the Royal London Hospital, a block away. You feel too the mixed cultural influences which pervade the school, in the Simpsons postcard sitting next to a piece of embroidered Bengali folk art on the windowsill.
Opened in 1964, the school sits on Commercial Road, one of the arteries of London's East End, an area where first Huguenots then Jews and most recently Bangladeshi immigrants have found a place for themselves. Ninety seven per cent of Mulberry pupils are now of Bangladeshi origin. In the road at the back of the school, the last of the small Jewish delis, Rogg's, is selling off its last olives and dates as it prepares to close down. Next door, Ali Bros cash and carry, all strip lighting and catering-size drums of cooking oil, represents the new face of local trade.
One in three homes in Tower Hamlets has no one in employment, but the area is squeezed between the economic boom zones of the City and the redeveloped Docklands. It's a tumultuous, demanding context in which to work, yet 49-year-old Miss Robottom displays none of the obvious hallmarks of the radical head. She lives over the Tower Hamlets border in Essex, and is not seen at Bangladeshi weddings or Eid parties. She addresses her pupils as "ladies" and has a reputation for even-handedness rather than personal warmth. She is assiduous rather than inspirational, more conscientious than charismatic and, despite the shocking pink, there is nothing flamboyant about her. "She's not known for being particularly creative or imaginative," says one colleague.
Hers may be a career path fuelled more by perspiration than inspiration, but it is none the less impressive for that. She has a muscular commitment to the community and the area, developed over 30 years of working in Mulberry school. Tower Hamlets, she says indignantly, has suffered "very badly" from negative press coverage over the years. "There is a feeling of injustice, when people are working so hard and it's just dismissed," she says.
She fought for a separate sixth-form centre for Mulberry, then for private money to equip its library and gymnasium. She has been "doing battle" with the local authority over the school's shabby and overcrowded buildings for nearly a decade, a struggle about to be resolved through a private finance initiative deal.
When Marlene Robottom took over as head nine years ago, her predecessor, Daphne Gould, left a card for her in the office inscribed with the gnomic words "Remember - the good days are really good". Naturally, the obverse applies. Miss Robottom admits to sleepless nights initially over "getting it right" - three words she uses quite a lot. "You can get bogged down with the down days," she says. "The big issue that nobody can prepare you for is the very political nature of education. At local level and at national level you are all the time trying to balance different influences and priorities."
That she has maintained her political balance locally is noteworthy. Because Muslim girls traditionally lead sheltered lives, sex education, religious education, sports lessons, the arts programme and theatre trips have all had to be carefully negotiated with the community via the governors. "We have taken the time to talk things over and years on you bear the fruit," says Miss Robottom.
For girls to succeed at school and go on to university often means a revolution in the thinking of their families. Yet last year 74 girls applied to university and 55 got places. In 1991, the figure was seven. "I think we have succeeded in giving the girls self-confidence," says Miss Robottom. "Parents' attitudes have changed. It was a question of really embedding the expectations, articulating them." Local MP Oona King had an ex-Mulberry pupil and Oxford graduate, Rushnara Ali, as her research assistant until recently, and Miss Robottom can call on old-girl engineers, barristers and doctors to come back and act as role models. "The rising reputation of the school means that we've been able to broker with parents the value of education for girls."
What emerges in the course of a day with her is that Marlene Robottom's own journey has in many ways mirrored that of her pupils. The only girl in a family of five children, she went to a secondary modern (Easington girls' school in Banbury, Oxfordshire - "I thoroughly enjoyed my time there") and was encouraged by the headteacher to transfer to a grammar school and take A-levels. Like many of her pupils, she was the first in the family to go on to higher education - to a certificate of education at a London college. "You can empathise," she says of her struggle to get students to broaden their horizons.
As much as the girls who pass through it, she has been shaped by Mulberry, which must have changed little since she arrived in 1971 as a home economics teacher. It has that air of cosiness and order peculiar to some all-girls' schools; large discoloured fish glide in a murky rectangular pond by the entrance, and round the back is the twisted tree which gave the school its name and under which pupils sit in the summer.
Miss Robottom quickly became a head of house, before being promoted to deputy head in 1980 and finally headteacher nine years ago. "I seem to have got opportunities at very key times," she says. "And the fact that I moved from pastoral responsibilities to curricular ones gave me an overview."
But despite the indomitable professionalism there is something uncertain about Marlene Robottom. She hesitates sometimes over language: "I think I'm, what's the word, discerning, about time out of school"; "Friday nights are . . . sacrosanct". As she talks, she squeezes a piece of Blutack in her home-economics teacher's hands, clean with squared-off, short nails. She loves the subject and says so unapologetically, although remarking briskly that she knows it is "not the normal academic route". "It sometimes gets to me, the notion that a practical subject is deemed to be of less worth than an academic one." She added a BEd and an MSc in education management to her qualifications to give herself the choice of going for a headship.
She still teaches home economics, standing in front of a Year 7 food technology class later in the day, jacket off. She gives the pupils back their bread roll designs - "I have to compliment you ladies, they were so imaginative" - and writes the day's instructions on the board. She is introducing her pupils (99 per cent for whom English is a second language) to words such as modify, substitute and additional, as well as teaching them that you can add seeds and spices to bread. Eleven-year-old Fahima Khan - whose sister and aunt are both Year 10 pupils at the school - says diplomatically that the head is a "really nice teacher".
As an oversubscribed, single-sex school, Mulberry arguably has less to contend with than some neighbouring schools. Top of the local league for six of the past seven years, the school succeeded in rising by a hair's breadth above the national average in 1999, when 48 per cent of pupils got five A-Cs at GCSE.
There are mutterings about the funding advantages that come with an almost entirely ethnic minority pupil roll, but colleagues locally are not grinding their teeth. "We're all compared with her school, but there were no real nasty remarks or bitterness when she won the award," says a fellow head. "She's a sound head and helpful as a person. It's good for Tower Hamlets and for her."
A naturally private person, Miss Robottom has already had to develop a public persona as headteacher of a successful school but will be even more in the limelight as a Dame. She's come a long way. "Many of the girls will look at me and at other white women and say to themselves that we've got it made," she says.
"But I look back to the Forties and Fifties, when women were expected to be at home and in the kitchen, which is certainly what I remember. I didn't have a privileged background. But the background I had gave me the drive and the desire to achieve things."