THIS year is Holland Park school's 40th anniversary. As we complete, in partnership with the LEA, a review of the year since our second Office for Standards in Education inspection, I am hugely encouraged by the evidence of the progress we have made.
Along with staff in many other inner-city comprehensives, we have worked very hard to sustain development and improvements in challenging circumstances and we know we are succeeding.
The school is full and we are heavily oversubscribed for Year 7 next September. As I make my contribution to the last tenth of the school's widely-observed history, I am impressed by the responses of staff and students, and by their achievements. Our agenda for the next steps in raising standards further is clear.
And this is with almost two-thirds of pupils having English as an additional language. We have more than 100 nationalities and over 70 languages, 55 per cent of pupils on free school meals, and a third with special needs register.
Our students recognise the value to them of being educated in a richly diverse multi-cultural community with others of all abilities and different home backgrounds, which reflects the reality of life in west central London.
Their self-confidence, independence, creativity and open-minded approach provide a stimulating learning environment for us all, students and staff. This is confirmed by visitors to Holland Park, including in the past few months hundreds of prospective parents, a delegation from the World Bank, groups of business executives, politicians, journalists and senior university academics.
In this context I was particularly dismayed by the press reports that followed the Prime Minister's remarks about standards in inner-city schools in a radio interview. While The TES included the word "some" ("Inner-city onslaught," TES, January 22) most of the papers and their headlines blamed us all.
For an improving inner-city comprehensive school, parental and student support and confidence are precious commodities. Parents who have the capability and the resources to apply to schools at a distance from home (or to move house to a different catchment area) are exactly those we need to keep with us. Their children can do well both academically and in their personal development. The image portrayed in the press suggested that there were no opportunities for this in inner cities, which is not true.
And what of teachers' response? I could feel the real sense of dismay, anger and resentment just when there are reasons for morale to be raised. I expect these feelings were echoed elsewhere.
The Green Paper on modernising the profession presents particular challenges for teachers working with deprivation and poor levels of prior achievement. At the moment they have no confidence that any measures of performance can take account of this. Such public and critical comments about their schools only help to convince them that their belief that there is little understanding of the context in which they work is right.
I regret this very much. We have a unique opportunity to secure the future of the teaching profession, but we have to engage in constructive debate about the proposals if we are to influence the outcome. There is a crisis in teacher recruitment already, especially in inner-city schools. We need to encourage capable teachers and new entrants to the profession to see the rewards of working in inner-city comprehensives and for the extra demands of work in such schools to be recognised.
The presence and activity of the social exclusion unit in Downing Street should suggest that the Government does understand. Perhaps the links with education need to be more explicit and the unit should have a direct relationship with the experience of schools in the inner cities.
Teachers compensate valiantly for extreme learning deficits and social deprivation to the extent that they often provide the most stable and secure part of some young people's lives. We need more "joined-up" working with other agencies such as social services and the police, with incentives and direct benefits for this.
It is time that we celebrate what works in inner-city schools, why and how, and then make sure we can spread it. Staff need the confidence and the support to be open and to question what is happening in their schools. We cannot afford any retreat into censure, defensiveness or despair. Without a balanced intake, from across the ability range and representing a mixture of social groups, improvement is more difficult.
Those who consider working in the inner city should be supported in taking what can be a professional risk and not discouraged. We need the best teachers and I am pleased that I inherited and have appointed so many of them. We also need the most effective governing bodies. We share a demanding, emotionally and physically exhausting but richly rewarding experience. The success of Holland Park school has continued to depend on the extraordinary hard work and commitment of the staff, the response and contribution of students with the support of parents and governors.
This gives me an opportunity to recognise them publicly together with other teachers and support staff across London schools and in inner cities elsewhere. Thank you.
Mary Marsh is the headteacher of Holland Park school in west London. Any ex-member of staff not yet traced should contact the school for an invitation to the 40th birthday party in March