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How Chisenhale Primary School in Bow is building a community beyond the school gates

Championing the spirit of the East End, Chisenhale’s duty of care reaches far beyond the classroom, going the extra mile for Bow’s pupils, staff and parents.

Against the fast pace of modern inner city life, the proverb: it takes a village to raise a child might seem outdated and clichéd at times. 

Though the East End is not a village per se, its tight-knit community and strong sense of identity can sometimes make it feel that way. 

And in the backstreets of Bow – a short walk from the Roman and a stone’s throw from the Hertford Union Canal – you will find a place where this saying feels rather apt. 

Chisenhale Primary School, located on the corner of Chisenhale Road and Zealand Road, channels the vibrant spirit of the East End. It instils in pupils the importance of campaigning for their rights and for the rights of others while looking out for all members of the community. 

With less than 350 pupils, the school is more like an extended family than a school at all. With no class larger than 22, children are valued and listened to, and there’s always time for questions (no matter how silly). 

Unscathed by the nation’s teacher retention crisis, Chisenhale has one teacher for every 16 students, ensuring there is always a friendly face for pupils to turn to. 

Inclusivity and stability are at the heart of Chisenhale’s ethos, led by staff who know the importance of creating a supportive environment where children can flourish. 

It is very important to us that the children have a connection both with their local area and nature. It supports their wellbeing, and we want them to feel proud of being from Bow, and all the opportunities it offers.

Gemma Anidi, Chisenhale Headteacher

Several local teachers attended Chisenhale themselves and Cathy Parker, the longest-serving staff member, has been working there for 45 years as a lunchtime supervisor and playworker at ‘Night Owls’ after-school club. 

Parker says: ‘I first started at Chisenhale when my daughters came here. I’ve fallen in love with the school and stayed – I’ve never thought about leaving – ever!’

With over 30 different languages spoken in Chisenhale pupils’ family homes, the school is a microcosm of our diverse East End. It employs a speech and language therapist to support students from all communities, alongside three trained emotional literacy support assistants to ensure no child is left behind. 

This year, Chisenhale is celebrating 10 years of weekly ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes for parents, who are heavily involved in the school community. 

As Headteacher Gemma Anidi says: ‘We believe our big strength is our parent body, we have a very active parent-teacher association (PTA) who organise Eid celebrations and international food sales.’

Such a wide variety of cultural influences means that summer and winter fairs feature everything from samosas and curries from Southeast Asia and Eritrea to Norwegian waffles and miso soup.   

Last year, pint-sized protestors holding placards above their heads and children standing on temporary planters were seen outside Chisenhale, defending their beloved play space which was threatened with removal. 

The solidarity and determination shown by the students was a remarkable and refreshing display of unadulterated enthusiasm on our East End streets, which even caught the attention of BBC News. 

Though the play space was eventually disassembled, the spirit of Chisenhale’s young campaigners is remembered by everyone who lives in the area. Teachers say that the debates sparked by the play space were invaluable in teaching students the importance of listening to contrasting views. 

The courage shown by the students is indicative of an educational environment where individuality is encouraged and children are nurtured to discover their voices. 

Chisenhale School in Bow, East London.
Classroom © Chisenhale School

This year, Chisenhale was recognised by UNICEF for the second time as a Gold Rights Respecting School. In a report, UNICEF highlighted the happy and confident nature of the students and their respect for their staff and peers. 

In 2022, the school achieved a bronze Tower Hamlets Oracy Award for creating opportunities for children to express themselves and gain confidence in public speaking. The school’s much-loved performing arts teacher, affectionately known as ‘Pop’, supports pupils to develop their spoken language skills in a variety of contexts. 

Whether it be in verse at the whole school poetry slam, or on stage at Year Six’s energetic performance of Fantastic Mr Fox, occasions for expression are abundant in the drama department. 

Musical opportunities are just as plentiful and varied. From djembe drumming and ukelele lessons to electronic bands or the more traditional violin, every child is encouraged to try new creative pursuits. 

The school’s location means that children can practically hop, skip and jump over the Hertford Union Canal to Victoria Park, providing a large expanse of green space enjoyed by few other inner-city schools. 

Vicky Park features heavily in students’ experience of life at Chisenhale, with nursery and reception children visiting the park this October to observe nature’s autumnal changes. Come summertime, it will see them battling it out in the egg and spoon race at the school’s annual sports day. 

As Anidi says: ‘It is very important to us that the children have a connection both with their local area and nature. It supports their wellbeing, and we want them to feel proud of being from Bow, and all the opportunities it offers.’ 

Knowing that good life habits start from a young age, Chisenhale was recognised this year with a Silver Healthy School Award for its work reducing sedentary behaviour and promoting active learning, making it to the airwaves on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Health programme. 

But when you strip it back, past the academics and the accolades, and you ask a teacher why they do their profession, it usually comes back to the word care. 

At Chisenhale, they know that it is never too early to provide mental health support and that a helping hand can go a long way. 

From headteacher, Gemma Anidi at the school’s helm, to the familiar faces at the school gates, genuine care and empathy flow through Chisenhale’s hallways, where the wellbeing of staff and students is the number one priority. 

Alongside staff members who are trained mental and physical health first aiders, Chisenhale works with the School Counselling Partnership to offer drop-in counselling services and longer-term therapy sessions to pupils, parents and staff. 

The extension of care to parents and staff highlights Chisenhale’s willingness to go the extra mile for every individual, building a community beyond the school gates in which students feel proud to belong. 

Chisenhale School in Bow, East London.
Giant slide in the school playground © Chisenhale School
Chisenhale School in Bow, East London.
Reading in the library © Chisenhale School

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like our article about a student-led podcast empowering minorities to break down social barriers. 

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Chisenhale Primary School

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