An east London primary has lifted itself out of special measures to become one of the most improved schools in the country in just three years - by exploiting its ethnic diversity and making international links. Martin Bentham reports To walk through the entrance of Tollgate primary school, in east London, is like entering a bazaar. Brightly coloured Islamic designs, Russian dolls, Chinese dragons and Asian mendhi-patterned hands emblazon the arches of the main corridor. Displays on the walls range from the singer Stevie Wonder, to celebrating the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, to a marine-themed frieze containing the faces of every child in the school.
It's a dazzling reflection of deep changes in this school, which has been transformed from failing four years ago into one singled out by the Government as one of the best in the country. As headteacher Tom Canning explains, the images symbolise the widely differing cultural backgrounds of the pupils and the efforts of his inner-city school to capitalise on the opportunities that this can offer.
By developing links with schools around the globe and offering teaching that the predominantly ethnic community nearby can relate to, he has been able to turn the school around: academic achievement has soared, discipline and behaviour is good, teachers are now keen to work at the school, and the morale of pupils, parents and staff is high.
"Not long ago, this school had lost the approval of the local community,"
Mr Canning says. "It was under-achieving, there was lots of dissent, lots of dissatisfaction, and the morale of the teachers and the children was low. Parents used to say that when they looked for the school in the league tables they started looking from the bottom up, not from the top down.
"I was determined to change that and I soon realised the answer was staring us in the face: we had to make use of the diversity around us. We needed to reflect the community we served and develop a curriculum that had meaning and a purpose for the families here, so we looked at all our units of study to see how we could make them relevant.
"That's where our international links have come in. They have given us a strategic vision and helped us to develop a curriculum that people are enthused by, so now the parents are involved and interested and the children are proud to be in the school. It has made a huge difference."
In 2001, when Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) judged Tollgate to be a failing school, the aggregate score for pupils in the key stage 2 national tests for 11-year-olds was 142 out of a possible 300. This year, the school's score is 254, above the national average and nearly double the tally four years ago.
Similarly, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in English shot up from 43 per cent in 2002 to 84 per cent this year; in maths it rose from 39 per cent to 80 per cent.
Such has been the pace of change that the Department for Education and Skills last year named Tollgate as one of the 10 most improved schools in the country. The achievement is all the more impressive given some of the difficulties faced by the school. More than 50 per cent of the 500 pupils are on free school meals, 65 per cent speak English as a second language and 22 per cent of children leave each year. Pupils come from 30 different countries, ranging from Bangladesh, which accounts for about one-third of the pupils, to nations in Eastern Europe and Africa, and between them speak 40 different languages.
As Mr Canning walks across the playground during lunchtime the pupils provide further vivid testimony to the school's positive atmosphere.
Several younger children with beaming smiles run up to wave, hug or shout hello to him, while a group of older pupils approaches politely to say "Good afternoon, Mr Canning" before rushing off to continue playing.
So how has this been achieved? The first step, Mr Canning explains, was to "throw open the doors" of his school and invite parents to tell him what they disliked and, more importantly, what they wanted from the school. He realised that there was much latent enthusiasm in the community that could be harnessed to turn round the school - and one of the best ways to do this was to forge international links.
The most prominent twinning so far is with Green Village school on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which teaches street children, many of whom are orphaned.
The initial connection was made via the British Council's Global Gateway portal, which finds link partners, and developed by Mr Canning, who paid his own way to make a reconnaissance trip last year. Parents responded enthusiastically and a second trip by one of the school's teachers was paid for by a parent governor. This half-term, four more teachers visited the Dhaka school, funded by the British Council as part of its Teachers International Professional Development programme.
Mr Canning says the benefits have been immense. Families have become more committed to Tollgate while teachers and children have gained inspiration and new teaching ideas from Green Village school. In particular, Mr Canning believes Tollgate can benefit by copying the extensive use of dance, drama and art in Bangladesh to motivate pupils who may struggle at first in more conventional lessons. National curriculum geography topics have also been adapted using materials collected from Dhaka to allow the study of a rural village in Bangladesh.
Then too, there is the inspiration to be drawn from seeing the Dhaka children -who view literacy as a way of escaping the streets - strive so hard in such unpromising circumstances. "I have learnt more from visiting the school in Dhaka than from my visits to many others in Europe," Mr Canning says.
Another link, also established via the Global Gateway, is with cole Cave, a school in inner-city Paris. One reciprocated pupil exchange trip has already taken place and email and videoconferencing links are continuing the connection.
London's 2012 Olympic bid was used to broaden pupils' horizons with a special project on Sweden, while teachers from Tollgate are planning a visit to the Caribbean island of Dominica to create further international links.
Tom Canning insists that this international dimension to the children's study can lift their aspirations and allow them to see beyond the often bleak surroundings in which they live.
"We have to prepare children for a life in a global society - not just here in Plaistow, or in east London, or even just in the UK, but for life in the whole world - and this is what international links do," he says. "It educates the children, but also helps them to realise how much opportunity there is out there and what can be achieved if they work hard."
Of course, some of the improvements at Tollgate are simply the result of better practice, organisation and use of resources. Nevertheless, teachers vouch for the impact that international links are making.
Parul Begum, a newly qualified Year 4 teacher of Bangladeshi origin, cites a recent example when the class learnt and sang a song in Twi, a Ghanaian language spoken by one of her pupils. "He is normally very quiet, but when I told him we were learning a song in Twi he loved it, you could see the spark, and it kicked over into everything else that he has done since,"
says Ms Begum, whose classroom walls are decorated with artwork showing the national flags of the different countries from which her pupils originate.
"His participation in lessons has changed completely. It shows how teaching things that relate to the children's backgrounds can make them feel valued and get the best from them."
From January, there will be a zone on the Olympics and Global Citizenship on: www.globalgateway.org.uk