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'We're the worst school in England'

There's a different buzz among children arriving at their Hackney primary. Instead of Tazos or football, the talking point outside Rams Episcopal is last night's news. Or as the pupils put it excitedly: "We're the worst school in England."

If their turn in the spotlight is a bit of a thrill for pupils, it is a source of confusion and anger for parents.

Many simply do not recognise their school in the TV reports. It may not be perfect - even its strongest supporters believe leadership could be tougher. But similarly, its biggest critics say their children are happy and seem to be doing well.

Karen Sexton, dropping off her son Tony the morning after the announcement, said other schools were worse. "We don't have bullying, they won't stand for it. The discipline is good. It's a good school, and it is improving. I'm fed up with it being run down."

Ornate railings and a bandstand in the playground attest to investment in the school, in the midst of some of Hackney's most deprived housing estates. The now-empty Hackney Downs School is not far away.

In tests last year, 37 per cent of pupils reached level four in English and only 28 per cent in maths and science.

Yet Mohamed Elfeki said: "Everybody is fighting to send their children here. My son is happy here. His maths, compared to a 15-year-old I know, is amazing."

But Vicky Nantume was critical of the education her five-year-old son receives in maths and English. "They are only being taught to play. They don't get any homework."

A phone call to the head is directed to Hackney Council's press office. But at nearby Morningside Primary, headteacher Jean Millham comes out fighting.

Juggling a rush of phone calls from media, parents and other heads, she slots in The TES between Radio 5 Live, the Hackney Gazette, Carlton TV - and, most importantly, school assembly, where she reassures pupils she still thinks they're the best.

Hackney Council - where Mr Blunkett's senior adviser, Michael Barber, is a former education chair - this week welcomed the Government's intervention.

But when Mrs Millham turned to Mr Blunkett's checklist of improvement ideas, she found Morningside had done all bar renaming the school. New head, staff, governors, work schemes, assessment schemes and behaviour policy are all in place. It has been a slow process, finally bearing fruit in improving key stage one results.

"I haven't seen an HMI since November," Mrs Millham said. "They haven't asked me what we need. To say there has been no improvement is a fallacy."

The school, in a huge, old-fashioned, run-down building, has Hackney's worst key stage two results - just 17 per cent reached level four in English last year, 10 per cent in maths and only 7 per cent in science.

But its roll, already 450, is still growing and last year children had to be turned away.

Eighty per cent of pupils take free school meals; a third arrive speaking no English. The population is highly transient, and some older children start without ever having been to school before.

Mrs Millham, appointed 20 months ago in the wake of a report from the Office for Standards in Education she admits made "horrific reading", now wonders how she will attract the good staff she believes the children deserve.

"We have been on special measures so long partly because of the enormity of the task. There were cupboards here that had not been opened for years. We had to kick them in," she says.

"It's not all roses here. But we've come so far and I don't want to see that trashed."

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