I choose a challenge
It has got to the stage where Alex Davies can predict the reaction from friends when she tells them where she teaches. There is a sharp intake of breath, followed by the question: "What are you doing working there?"
While her career path raises eyebrows, Ms Davies is undaunted. For her first teaching job, she chose to work in one of the most deprived areas of the country. "Some people think I'm brave, but I enjoy the challenge," she says.
Her school is overlooked by the tower blocks that are home to many of its almost 2,000 pupils. More than a third are on free school meals, almost three times the national average. A quarter have special educational needs, half as much again as the national average. A higher than average number of pupils have English as an additional language. It is no surprise her friends think she has gone in at the deep end.
"You have to have an understanding of where the kids come from and the severe problems they might be facing at home," says Ms Davies, 26, an art and photography teacher. "You need a lot of patience."
The advantage for Ms Davies is that, although it is in an area that deserves the epithet "challenging", her school, Robert Clack in Dagenham, east London, is recognised as one of the best in the country. Twice judged outstanding by Ofsted, last year the inspectorate named it one of the best 12 secondary schools excelling against the odds.
Ms Davies says management support for a clear and consistent behaviour policy is a crucial factor for any new teacher in an inner-city school. At Robert Clack, this has undoubtedly made her first year less stressful than it could have been, but it is still no walk in the park.
"Every day is very testing because you're dealing with such a range of problems," she says. "You do get a lot of support but it still comes down to whether you can cope with difficult situations."
Ms Davies is also aware of what can happen when that support is not there. At a placement school during her PGCE, she was working with another teacher when a fight broke out between two pupils.
"They were Year 10 so they were pretty big but I broke up the fight and afterwards I asked the other teacher what would happen to them, and she said nothing," Ms Davies says. "It's when behaviour problems aren't dealt with and the leadership team doesn't get involved that you're in trouble."
Robert Clack's headteacher, Sir Paul Grant, says that even with a reputation for running an outstanding school, he struggles to attract new teachers. He says many prospective staff are put off by the forbidding image of inner-city schools. And for teachers who do want to work in London, Dagenham is well down their list of preferences.
"Any head who runs an inner-city school knows how important the staff are - they are the school," he says.
"But the odds are stacked against you. People aren't attracted to this area and some people will say they don't want to work in this part of east London. If they're coming to London they look at what they see as the more glamorous areas.
"We don't get the choice and variety that other schools get, even in other parts of London that are more attractive to young staff. We're desperate for excellent staff."
Despite being named as one of the Sunday Times "100 best companies" to work for, the school cannot rely on its reputation alone to overcome preconceptions about the area. Sir Paul reckons around half of the 130- strong teaching force first came on placement. "We totally rely on teaching practice to bring them through," he says.
And there are signs the difficulty in recruiting new staff could be about to get worse. Despite claims the recession would create a surplus of people wanting to get into the relatively secure profession of teaching, figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry show that interest in becoming a teacher has dramatically tailed off since the start of the year. And inner-city schools that already struggle are likely to be the hardest hit.
Although he has built an enviable reputation, Sir Paul acknowledges that even the relatively well-ordered atmosphere at Robert Clack could be too much for some teachers. Staff will be confronted by issues they would never come across in more affluent areas, and need to have "clever antennae" to pick up on some of the problems children bring to school.
"Where people themselves face great challenges, the children will come to school in that context," he says. "The challenges facing them are going to be great and so are those facing the school."
Sally Benson, 23, is one of the teachers who applied to Robert Clack after a placement convinced her it was a good place to work. She says the support system helps new teachers to cope, but the school still demands a lot from staff. Ms Benson, a science teacher, reckons she works a six or even seven-day week.
"It keeps you on your toes," she says. "There is a high level of pupils with special needs and there is a diverse population in the school. I don't see it as a challenging school; I see it as a good school with some challenging pupils."
Teachers who start in inner-city schools should be given extra training to deal with some of these issues, according to Kathryn Riley, director of the London education research unit at London University's Institute of Education (IoE). "There is something distinctive about working in an inner city," she says. "You have to give teachers the skills and the knowledge to understand the complexities of people's lives."
This extra help could include courses in understanding the causes of teenage pregnancy and bad behaviour among children who feel marginalised, she says. Another major issue is the number of children with a first language other than English. More than 40 per cent of children in London have English as a second language, and in some boroughs that figure is as high as 75 per cent.
Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), believes help in dealing with some of the problems teachers can expect to face in urban areas will be more of an incentive than financial perks, in the form of "golden handcuffs" payments. "It's clear workers in the toughest schools need a different set of skills," he says.
The TDA is looking at ways of persuading teachers to give inner-city schools a try, and is examining retention rates in different types of schools.
At Robert Clack, all new teachers go on a weekend residential course, looking at how to deal with difficult behaviour, among other issues. Newly qualified teachers (NQTs) also have daily contact with their subject leader, to make sure they are getting the support they need.
Sir Paul says the school puts such emphasis on behaviour because this is the top priority for any new teacher. "I have not met any NQT who has not said first off, `What support am I going to get for behaviour?' They go straight there," he says.
Ms Benson admits the behaviour is "sometimes challenging", but says the knowledge that there is a clear and consistent approach is reassuring for new teachers. "It can be a very stressful environment but there are so many policies in place that if anything does go wrong, you can safely deal with it," she says. "We had a lot of training beforehand, which was essential."
Even with this level of support, she recognises that inner-city schools are not easy places to work. "I know a lot of people only stay two years or so, and I can understand that," she says. "For some people, less challenging schools may be much more appealing."
Fiona Garlick, 23, admits she was nervous when she found out her first placement on her PGCE course would be at Robert Clack. Ironically, her second placement, at a school in a more affluent area, convinced her to apply for a permanent post as a music teacher in Dagenham.
"Even though it was in a `better' area, the level of behaviour was worse and there was no support from the leadership team," she says. "My classes at Robert Clack are better."
Even so, Ms Garlick admits there have been times when it has been a struggle. "I did wonder if I was going to have behaviour problems; I did to start with," she says.
"It took a while and it was stressful, but it didn't put me off. I used the behaviour strategies in place week after week and I got used to it. I feel confident that if something happens I will know how to deal with it and the school will follow it through."
Despite its reputation, no one doubts the level of commitment required to teach at Robert Clack: "You have to really want to be here and to get the best out of the pupils," says Ms Garlick.
This level of dedication to teaching in inner cities is shared by many of the students who train at the IoE, according to Sheila King, director of the secondary PGCE programme: "People come here because they want to make a difference."
As a result, IoE courses put emphasis on dealing with some of the issues teachers could expect to face in inner-city schools, including behaviour problems, but also teenage pregnancy, children with English as an additional language and child protection.
But Mrs King acknowledges that this can only ever be a limited preparation for life in an inner-city school. "You can't learn it all on a nine-month PGCE, and it can be a very steep learning curve," she says. "Often it is the people who are adaptable and can find creative ways of managing behaviour who cope the best."
Patrick Ndiaye admits he was nervous when he arrived for his NQT year at Robert Clack. But the school has proved a contrast to his first placement, in an area considered much less challenging than Dagenham.
"I had to spend 10 or 15 minutes every lesson dealing with behaviour problems," says Mr Ndiaye, 35, a French teacher. "I don't have that at Robert Clack."
Even with the level of help available to staff at Robert Clack, there are times when he needs the intervention of senior managers. "It is hard work," he says. "You get support but it's still tough. If there is an incident, we call somebody, they deal with it immediately."
Not everyone is suited to working in an inner-city school - even one with as hard-earned a reputation as Robert Clack's. Sir Paul believes it takes a certain type of teacher to be successful in a challenging area, and it is not always the ones who are out to do good. "I don't want anybody who thinks they're doing the kids a favour," he says. "We want someone prepared to make a massive commitment to these children."
Ms Davies says she would feel "out of place" working in a school that has no problems. "You can get support for behaviour management but most of it comes down to what you are like as a person and whether you can cope with these situations," she says.
"Some people are better off working in schools where they don't have behaviour issues and other people are good at dealing with these kinds of people and can empathise with them. When it comes to teaching, it is horses for courses."