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The tide is turning in Armada town

At Tilbury in 1588, Elizabeth I exhorted the collection of rogues and Cornishmen who would defend her island against the Spanish Armada: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,"she cried, "but I have the heart and stomach of a King of England too."

Whether this represented the cutting edge of equal opportunities in the 16th century, I'm not sure. It was certainly an advance on her father's approach which was concerned less about hearts than about heads and bodies and whether or not they should be attached to each other.

Either way, Elizabeth's rousing speech certainly put Tilbury firmly on the map.

Just over 400 years later it's back. It has changed a bit since the Faerie Queen was there. The forest of masts has gone. Now it's a small town cut off from the rest of Essex by a complex series of dual carriageways. It's also isolated from Kent - across the estuary - by the fact that a bridge upstream has taken away the traffic that used to provide the business for a ferry.

I first went to Tilbury on an autumn day in 1994. As I turned off the A13 it was as though I had left the rest of the world behind. Swathes of mist hung over fields in which forlorn horses grazed. I took a wrong turning and instead of arriving in the town centre, found myself in the decaying area around the docks. I felt as though I had stumbled into one of those science fiction films where a few survivors eke out an existence in a post-holocaust world. Then I came to a pub which confirmed my worst fears: it was called "The World's End".

When I finally found the schools I was looking for the contrast could not have been more marked. In spite of the gloom, something was stirring in Tilbury. The schools - a secondary and five feeder primary schools - had looked several generations of educational underachievement and low expectations in the face and begun to do something about it.

A couple of years earlier, HM inspectors in preparing their seminal report on "Access and achievement in urban education" had slammed low standards in the area. "The rising tide of national educational reform is not lifting these boats", they had concluded in an unusually poetic piece of inspector speak. The local paper had put it more succinctly and brutally. Its headline had read "Duncetown".

The teachers and the local community, once the initial shock wore off, gritted their teeth and set to work. They lobbied hard for support from the local education authority. Essex had forgotten until then that it had an inner city. To its great credit it responded with alacrity. In spite of the pressures on its budget, it found Pounds 300,000 to support school improvement in Tilbury.

The heart of this story, though, is not the money, but the people in Tilbury itself. The headteachers of the schools joined LEA officers in planning a school improvement strategy for the town. Collectively they got over the mutual recriminations and suspicions which inevitably followed the HMI report.

They agreed targets which were timetabled and costed; they began to review and debate teaching and learning approaches; they agreed a common approach to behaviour across all the schools; they surveyed and analysed pupil attitudes; they agreed that primaries would use common reading and maths tests so that they could monitor progress and compare notes; they built a primary classroom in the secondary school to improve liaison between the sectors; they planned whole-town training days; and they took the message to parents, governors and the public. Tilbury is not Duncetown; it is a town on the move, a place of ambition and aspiration.

No one in Tilbury believes the town's problems are over. The town's past and the economic deprivation of the present still weigh heavily, but the climate in the schools has changed from despair to hope. No one in Tilbury believes, either, that they have suddenly cracked school improvement. They know there is still a long way to go before pupil outcomes reach levels they would like to see.

Even so, the early evidence shows clear signs of progress. Three of the schools have been inspected by the Office for Standards in Education this year and each received a positive report. The tone is quite different from the one of gloom that was recorded two years earlier.

Another indicator of Tilbury's success is that it has begun to attract new young teachers who relish the challenge of the future. If the phrase had not been debased by Norman Lamont one might describe these as green shoots of recovery. Hopefully many more ambitious teachers, young and not-so-young, will choose Tilbury in the future.

Tilbury's progress could still be held up. Government expenditure cuts could have the effect that a frost would have on spring's green shoots. Under local government reorganisation, Thurrock is likely to take over from Essex responsibility for education in Tilbury. If the new authority chooses to support the improvement strategy and recognises that it can only work if the schools drive it then this could be an opportunity, but if it chooses to take a top-down directive approach it too could freeze the progress that has been made.

In the schools, though, they are simply getting on with the job. The lesson of Tilbury, and of other similar projects, is that improvement is a job for schools. The job of others - new authorities or old, central government or local - is to create a climate which encourages schools to improve themselves.

Tilbury may be unique in having played host to Queen Elizabeth and her navy in 1588. In school improvement terms it is part of a national movement. In terms of the country's future, the staff in projects like the one in Tilbury are performing a task scarcely less important than Elizabeth's navy and demanding heroism on a similar scale. In this case the role of Philip of Spain is being played by an ageing and embittered actor called "Low Expectations" and his beard is definitely being singed.

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