Education: Pioneer takes schools to new heights

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The Independent Online
Ground-breaking policies in Birmingham are raising standards in inner city schools. First evidence of rising test and exam results in the city is good news for the Government which has used Birmingham as a blueprint for many of its initiatives. Judith Judd, Education Editor, reports.

Birmingham is the fifth most deprived district in England, according to government figures. In a quarter of its primary schools, 50 per cent or more of pupils are eligible for free school meals, the commonest yardstick for measuring educational disadvantage. Yet figures from the city's research and statistics department reveal that in this year's national test results for 11-year-olds it ranks as the third (equal) most improved local authority for English and science and the seventh for maths.

At every stage of schooling, rates of improvement in Birmingham are higher than they are nationally. They are also better than in other comparable authorities. The authority is confident that the big improvements are the result of changes put in place over the last four years under the leadership of Professor Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer.

Birmingham has been one of the pioneers of target-setting, now a vital part of government policy, and has encouraged all its schools to set targets to improve on previous best performance in tests and exams and to think hard about how to raise standards. The city has also introduced assessment for five-year-olds, again ahead of national plans.

Results for the city are still below the national average but if improvements continue at the present rate, seven-year-old test results will pass the national average by 1999 and those for 11-year-olds by 2000.

No one in Birmingham is complacent. School improvement is notoriously difficult to sustain. Truancy, for instance, remains a problem though there are signs that it is beginning to decline. Generally, however, the omens are good. Professor Brighouse said: "People identify this as a campaign to improve standards in an urban area. In this city we have seen a widespread suspension of disbelief that inner-city schools can succeed."

The progress is most marked in primary schools which the city has asked to sign up to a "primary guarantee". Schools promise to bring a higher proportion of pupils up to the expected standard in maths and English as well as exploring with them experiences such as playing a musical instrument.

In return, the authority promises them enough money to do the job. For seven-year-olds over the last six years the improvement in national test results for those reaching the expected standard is 9 percentage points in English (national figure 2) and 20 percentage points in maths (national 12). For 11-year-olds between last year and this it is 11 percentage points in English compared with a national average of 6, and 10 points in maths compared with a national average of 8. At GCSE the improvement over the last five years is 5 percentage points compared with a national average of 2, which is the same as that for comparable authorities.

Professor Brighouse said the results had been achieved by both large and tiny interventions. Schools have not been compelled to accept any of these but they have been enthusiastically encouraged to do so. Professor Brighouse said: "There is moral pressure to take on baseline testing and the primary guarantee but there are a lot of other inititiatives that schools can either take or leave."

One of the biggest battles was to convince heads that they could do better: originally some set lower targets for the future on the grounds that next year's pupils were "not as clever". Dozens of meetings have been held to explain the school improvement strategy to heads from the 450 schools.

The tiny interventions include tips to help schools learn from each other and thousands of personal letters which Professor Brighouse has written to teachers whom his advisers tell him are doing a good job.

Schools are grouped according to their intakes so that those with similar types of pupils can see how they are doing.