Newham is on message with New Labour ideology - but in an Old Labour kind of way. Nicolas Barnard reports
Tucked under the fume-choked A13, Keir Hardie primary lies in the middle of Canning Town estate for which the words bleak and wasteland could have been invented.
It was to here that Westminster Council has been accused of shipping out its homelss families when it sold off its houses and the area is home to numerous West African refugees.
But headteacher Richard Lucas is upbeat. In his tiny office in his school, named after the founding father of the British Labour party, he considers how much Newham has changed. "It was almost control by fear," he says. "The local authority bullied schools. An adviser would come in and say jump and you'd say 'How high?'" Newham now is a vibrant place to work, he says. The borough has a buzz. And after years where the focus was on secondary schools, primaries are about to feel the benefit.
Newham has some of the largest primaries in the country - some with more than 800 pupils. It is here that the authority's pound;11.4 million budget rise is being channelled.
Every reception class is to get a trained teaching assistant from September, along with every Year 1 class in Keir Hardie and other schools in the area that Newham wants to become an action zone. And all infant classes in the borough should have an assistant by 2000.
Summer-born children will join the reception class in January instead of April and schools will be funded to employ permanent teachers - because numbers rise during the year they have had to rely on agency staff. In autumn when numbers are lower they will be able to work on planning and staff development. Money is also going into primary homework clubs and computers.
Children in Canning Town, Mr Lucas believes, are "educationally deprived". Most barely registered on baseline tests two years ago. In a partnership with industry that has foreshadowed the action zone bid schools have put together packs for children containing crayons, papers, wall charts, scissors and all the other typical play things these homes simply did not have. The results have been immediate - Keir Hardie's baseline profile now resembles Newham's.
That is the kind of simple, imaginative - and cheap - initiative he believes the zones can replicate, along with all the benefits of working together and pooling staff.
But, he says, Newham will have to loose the reins a little bit more.
"Newham has moved dramatically from being very Old Labour to being far more proactive and positive. But it's still a little bit frightened of letting go. It's an important leap of faith for any local authority to give away that sort of power."