No more sink or swim as London discovers its eastern promise

A swimming certificate was once the goal for some East End pupils. Not any more, say Kate Gavron and Geoff Dench

In Tower Hamlets, Bangladeshi pupils, the largest ethnic group in the borough, outperform the other main groups academically. Their GCSE results are significantly better than white UK or African Caribbean pupils and girls outperform boys. Surveys show that their aspirations to go on to higher or further education develop during their years at secondary school. Why is this? How much can be explained by the qualities of the local schools? And to what extent might this academic success be the result of being part of a supportive family structure, usually itself part of a strong extended family, extending in many cases back to Bangladesh?

Among East London's white working class, there is a long history of scepticism about education. When the 1870 Education Act began to deprive parents of their children's wages there were protests. Indifference by some parents to the benefits of education persisted into the 1950s, when Michael Young and Peter Willmott were doing research for their classic 1957 study Family and Kinship in East London. In those days, manual workers lived by their strength, toughness and acquired dexterity. The class that was created by the demands of industry was the class of Bethnal Green in the 1950s.

Most traditional jobs for East End boys and men were manual jobs found through family or personal connections. It was not a question of who you knew mattering more than what you knew, but of what you knew mattering hardly at all. Boys had to be good at boxing or get a certificate for swimming 50 yards, which entitled them to apply for a job in the docks or on the river. Such attitudes persisted: a teacher told us that as late as 1975 a pupil's mother said that all she wanted him to get out of his schooling was a swimming certificate.

Bangladeshi children's experience of schooling is different from that of white pupils. Arriving from a different way of life - in essence a rural existence, where education is largely paid for privately - and with a distinct cultural heritage, the school system here provides a welcome fast-track to the understanding of and preparation for life in Britain.

The pace of entry of Bangladeshi children into Tower Hamlets schools has been dramatic even by the standards of the East End, which has become used to the arrival of new communities over many centuries. Bangladeshi children hardly figured in the 1971 census, yet by 2001, 58 per cent of the borough's population aged 0-17 was Bangladeshi, and in 2005 some 62 per cent of pupils in primary schools and 55 per cent in secondary schools were Bangladeshi. Clearly such a sharp influx of so many children into one local education authority area will have created some challenges. It has necessitated the re-opening of some schools and the building of new ones.

Newly arrived Bangladeshi children face many practical difficulties in going to school in Britain, of which the most immediate is language. Nowadays virtually all new pupils were born in the UK but many still arrive at school with low levels of proficiency in English. Poor housing has also had a detrimental effect on Bangladeshi children's education. Despite all the council has done to give priority to those in the greatest need, Bangladeshi families are still the worst off for housing. Their households are, above all, the most overcrowded.

Despite language barriers and housing problems, however, and their difficult start in education, Bangladeshi pupils have made considerable progress. This is a tribute to the efforts of the teachers and the LEA but it is also due to the simple fact that Bangladeshi parents value education so highly. Bangladeshi parents are external supporters of the teachers, and this is reflected in the academic results.

In terms of examination success, Tower Hamlets schools improved greatly during the Nineties, and in 2003 it had four secondary schools in the national top ten in terms of added value, which can be considered a triumph for the teachers of the borough. During the Nineties pupils in all groups improved their score, but Bangladeshis improved most of all. This is beginning to pay off, with increasing numbers from the borough going on to further and higher education - and gaining more stable and mainstream employment than their parents. There is also a gender dimension, with girls in all groups outperforming boys, although the gap between Bangladeshis is less than that between white and African Caribbean boys and girls.

A teacher at an all-girls secondary school put it quite explicitly: "[The girls] value education. I think they see it as a way of improving their life chances. They see that quite early on. And they work very, very hard. I don't think we are a brilliant set of teachers, but teachers have to be allowed to do a good job and because of their attitudes we are able to do a better job than we would if we were chasing up various disciplinary problems."

The relative academic success of Bangladeshi children creates a difficult situation for white parents, although this is not a new phenomenon. Young and Willmott's 1950s study found that some of the Jewish respondents commented that whereas people in their own families had seen education as a means of climbing out of the area, local non-Jewish working-class people made it hard for their own children to take up opportunities.

One respondent said: "We were Jewish immigrants and so we had no class really. It was different for us. The English working class had a fear of being thought snobs. I can remember two girls who won scholarships but did not take them up and I am sure that it was not on account of the money, but they thought it was above their station to go to grammar school."

There is considerable ambivalence nowadays among white parents. There may be a lingering local tradition among a few of not having confidence in education as a way out of poverty. But for most it grates if the benefits appear to be directed towards newcomers who have not been long on the scene. They feel their children will do better in schools with fewer Bangladeshis.

The denominational schools in Tower Hamlets include a number of Roman Catholic schools, an inheritance from the large Irish community living there in the 19th century. Given recent demographic changes and settlement patterns, these have acted as barriers to integration through a degree of segregation of Bangladeshi and white children. In 2002, 17 primary schools had more than 90 per cent Bangladeshi pupils and another nine (all denominational) had fewer than 10 per cent.JOut of 16 secondary schools in 2002, four denominational schools (three Roman Catholic) had 3 per cent or fewer Bangladeshi pupils, while nearby three non-denominational schools had in excess of 90 per cent - with a further one with more than 80 per cent. The desire of white parents to avoid schools with more than a few Bangladeshis has also played a part in that segregation.

It is not hard to work out why schools do not mirror closely the distribution of local populations; the degree of parental choice available would in itself account in large part for the ethnic polarisation in the schools. Bangladeshi parents have different priorities: some of them want schools with many white children so that their children will be able to improve their English more quickly; many more want, above all, single-sex education, especially for their girls. The white parents, when asked, have less complicated views. With a few exceptions they do their best to avoid schools dominated in numbers by Bangladeshis.

What both parents and pupils can do is limited by the selection systems; if preferences were the only consideration, then schools might be even more largely white or Bangladeshi than they already are.

This is paradoxical in the eyes of many. One of our interviewees, Father Reilly, whose family has been in the East End since 1848 when his ancestors fled from the Irish potato famine, argued that East Enders were not in essence racist. The lines of division were cultural, including religious. This may be the case and, indeed, the denominational schools are ethnically mixed. But the fact that Bangladeshis are Muslim means that the denominational schools are seen as refuges by some white families, and the admissions policies have exacerbated segregation. All around the borough stories abound of people who had their children baptised in a Catholic church to make sure they get entry to a Catholic school later on and any increase in faith schools in future would contribute to a further polarisation of young people in the area.

In these circumstances the schools and teachers of Tower Hamlets are left with a demanding role, promoting a common set of values and identity against a backdrop of considerable competition for resources. Schools are in principle places where community spirit is generated, as parents are brought together by the shared work of bringing up the next generation and they forge ties outside their families. It is probably among teachers that there is greatest experience and understanding of community relations locally and of their complexities and diverse implications. It is teachers who occupy the front line of wider multicultural citizenship building here on behalf of the state. Another challenge for them is to find a solution to the problem of underachievement among boys in most groups. As for families, we believe that the strength and mutual support in Bangladeshi households has made an important contribution to the relative success of their children.

Kate Gavron is a researcher at the Institute of Community Studies. The New East End , by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young, Profile, £15.99.

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