As OFSTED publishes its controversial report on literacy in three London boroughs, Diana Hinds reports on the achievements of one Tower Hamlets school.
Words of praise for reading achievements in Tower Hamlets might seem few and far between, but Stebon Primary School, in Poplar, has more to be pleased about than many schools in the borough. The school, which was not among the sample of 15 Tower Hamlets schools included in this week's survey by the Office for Standards in Education, has shown a steady improvement in recent years.
With an intake of 80 per cent Bangladeshi children from the deprived Poplar estate, its national curriculum test results at seven are well above average for the borough, and its London Reading Test scores at 11 are among Tower Hamlets' best.
And the secret? There is nothing very new in the way Stebon School teaches reading: a well-proven mixture of phonics, look-and-say and "real" books, which go home with the children every night. What Stebon has evolved is an exceptionally rigorous system of planning, monitoring and assessment, beside which the national curriculum's panoply of paperwork almost pales into insignificance.
When Paramjeet Sehmi took over as head six-and-a-half years ago, she found the school's four Section 11 teachers (or "LAP" - Language Acquisition Project - teachers, as they are known) unclear about their exact role. Immediately, she set about introducing more team work. Class teachers and LAP teachers now collaborate closely and regularly, targeting the children who need extra help. As well as holding termly planning meetings with her staff, Ms Sehmi now requires them to submit to her, every Monday, copies of their weekly plans.
Planning is backed up by active monitoring. Once or twice a term, each teacher is observed for one-and-a-half hours - much in the manner of Ofsted - either by Ms Sehmi, her deputy or a senior co-ordinator. Teachers are given about a week's notice for these mini inspections, and get feedback two or three days later from Ms Sehmi. This is an effective way, she says, of keeping them on their toes, and up to date on their records of, for instance, how often they have heard each child read. Problems or lapses can be spotted quickly and put right - instead of waiting until they show up in the next crop of national test results.
More recently, this accountability has moved further down the school, making the system less top-heavy. Subject co-ordinators now undertake regular checks on a sample of three workbooks from each class - below - average ability, average and above-average - and make gentle criticisms where necessary.
Every term, class teachers assess each child's reading, national curriculum level on a subject chart, and submitting the work and their report on it to Ms Sehmi, as a basis for future planning.
Not quite content with all this, Ms Sehmi says she would like to introduce a formalised school assessment for children at eight or nine. "There is a lot of paperwork involved," she admits. "But the way I justify it is that children have got to achieve. The only way we can do it is by monitoring their progress. What I think I am good at is knowing what will make the school successful: my vision is very clear, and I have to share it with others."
The system has taken time to get established, but the teachers, she says, are now beginning to make real use of the information they record, rather than just filling in forms as a chore. Suryia Haider, who has taught at the school for seven years and was recently appointed English co-ordinator, agrees that it is useful: "It is time-consuming, but it has helped me to plan different work for each group and for each child."
"We are working and planning more as a team," says Liz Harper, the school's LAP co-ordinator. "I think people were apprehensive about the new system at first, but we have got used to it. It is done very carefully, and the feedback is good, giving us helpful ideas and advice."
Terry Reynolds, English inspector for Tower Hamlets, says Stebon school is unusual in the thoroughness of its planning and assessment, and particularly in its regular monitoring, by a range of staff, of what goes on in the classroom. The team approach, where everyone knows what they are expected to do, is also crucial, he says. Schools where reading practices and standards are unsatisfactory are frequently those which lack an agreed approach.
"Stebon School has a very good tracking system; it's onerous and demanding, and it doesn't make for an easy life - but there is vision and rigour here. They know what they are trying to achieve, and they have thought it through. "
If there are lessons to be learnt from the OFSTED survey, it would appear that Stebon School has elarned many of them already.