'We're of one mind'

Phil Revell looks at a beacon primary that raised aspirations, despite the problems of a dilapidated building

When Hull sold the family silver in the shape of telecoms firm Kingston Communications, a few questions were asked about where the pound;263 million proceeds went. What did the citizens of Hull have to show for the sale? Amraz Ali knows at least part of the answer.

Amraz is head of the inner-city Stepney primary school. He arrived in Hull five years ago, looking for a challenge after spells as a class teacher and deputy in Leeds and Bradford. "This headship came up and it appealed to me because it was an inner-city school with an ethnically diverse population," he says.

The reality was a run down primary in a tough district, poor results and a dodgy roof.

"It was built in 1886," he says. "It's is a classic Victorian building. There were 99 children on roll, and standards were extremely low."

A survey in 1998 highlighted the poor physical conditions.

"For the first time ever Stepney primary was at the top of a league table," says Amraz. Hull gave him a vote of confidence, and the telecoms bonanza paid for pound;300,000 of essential repairs, including a new roof.

And Stepney repaid that confidence: this is now a beacon school, the roll has doubled, standards have steadily improved and a recent Ofsted described the institution as "very effective".

"We did it by raising aspirations, changing a mindset, making sure that we were of one mind," says Amraz.

The catchment is still the challenge it always was. One of its biggest problems is pupil turnover because in an area with a great deal of privately rented accommodation, families are endlessly flitting.

Last year, of the 200 on Stepney's roll, 190 moved: 101 joined after September and 90 left before July.

"From the school's point of view, it means we have to keep very good records on each child because many of them return sometimes within a term," says Amraz.

But the community is very supportive. "Parents and carers want their children to behave well, wear the uniform, enjoy school," says Amraz. "Some of our families are facing huge challenges. They may be without work; they may have some kind of family trauma. They're preoccupied with questions of how to put food on the table, find a job, pay the rent. But I've yet to meet a parent who doesn't say that they want the best for their child."

Amraz has been able to attract the staff to enable Stepney's children to achieve. Sally Coats, an NQT, came to Stepney because she'd heard that it was an effective school. The deputy head, Helen Thomson, had been on the verge of leaving teaching a few years ago, but arrived as an advanced skills teacher and stayed to lead the incremental rise in teaching standards.

"When you mention that you work in Hull, people say: 'I wouldn't want to teach there'," she comments."But we need to get across to people - we're doing exciting things here. Stepney is probably more effective, more innovative than a safe school in the suburbs."

Amraz is emphatic about the support he has been given by the city. "I think that the authority has a lot to offer: they have the bias right between challenge and support," he says. "I'm committed to working in Hull.

"And I debate that Hull is in trouble. I think we are heading in the right direction. At key stages 1 and 2 many schools have met and exceeded their targets."

As in most successful schools the emphasis is on getting the simple things right.

"Learning matters," says Amraz."It happens every day. We finish at 5 past 3 and learning is happening at 3 o'clock."

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