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Tuesday, 9 February, 1999, 11:53 GMT
Thriving against the odds
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

If Tony Blair claimed his three priorities to be "education, education, education" the headteacher of one of the most successful primary schools in England emphasises the importance of "books, books, books".

Ruth Miskin, the energetic headteacher of Kobi Nazrul school in Tower Hamlets, East London, says learning to read and write is central to pupils' development and she firmly asserts that no one should leave primary school without a strong grasp of literacy skills.

Kobi Nazrul is among the primary schools identified as "particularly successful" by the Office for Standards in Education, an achievement that is made all the more impressive by the social factors stacked up against it.

Pupils and staff outside Kobi Nazrul school
Kobi Nazrul school has succeeded in an area of deprivation
Only a small minority of pupils at the school speak English at home, the majority arriving in the nursery class as Bengali speakers. Low levels of literacy would often be associated with such a high proportion of pupils with English as a second language, but here they are performing above the national average.

Ruth Miskin says she dislikes the stereotypical views of inner-city deprivation, but the school, in the backstreets of Whitechapel, serves a community that is among the least advantaged in the country.

Although the headteacher emphasises the respect for education among the local community, you do not have to look far for examples of poverty. Sitting on a bench outside the school a homeless man is drinking his way through a cold afternoon, on the main street a woman with young children is begging.

Ruth Miskin and pupils
Ruth Miskin says that reading will bring her pupils confidence
But inside, the school is warm and smartly decorated and neatly-dressed children - almost all Asian - are filing quietly between classes.

The school's efforts to make sure that these children receive as promising a start as their counterparts in leafier suburbs are rooted in its disciplined approach to teaching reading.

Ruth Miskin believes in leading from the front, and she trains her own staff in the reading technique that is used in the school. This phonics-based method is taught intensively each day, with an emphasis on consistency and detail, so that all pupils gain an ability to read independently as soon as possible.

Reading, says the headteacher, "is not just the foundation but the whole building itself". An enjoyment of reading and a love of books are encouraged, with the aim of getting pupils to feel more confident about using their reading to learn more about other subjects, such as history or geography.

Pupil at Kobi Nazrul
A majority of pupils arrive at Kobi Nazrul as non-English speakers, but still learn to read quickly
"When children can't read there is low self-esteem, children are messing around and get bored. We want them to be reading with confidence, to be able to read quite sophisticated texts at an early age."

There has been speculation in the past as to how much her firm ideas on literacy have influenced a prominent figure in education - her partner, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead.

For other schools seeking to follow Kobi Nazrul's success, Ruth Miskin says that much depends on the headteacher, who she believes must present a clear sense of direction and momentum.

Ofsted annual 98
Heads should be involved in all aspects of school life, she says, or else they risk becoming outsiders - "schools can be the best or the worst places to work in" - and they have a central role in creating the right atmosphere and self-image for staff and pupils.

A school with a strong sense of direction and a highly-focused approach to its efforts should also help teachers avoid the problems of overworking.

Ruth Miskin says her school makes a deliberate policy of reducing the amount of school-related work that encroaches into teachers' weekends or holidays.

Improving a school "isn't a mystery and it isn't a religion", she says. "What's essential is that teachers know what they are meant to achieve and that headteachers can show them how to achieve it."

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