Staff and pupils rise to challenge of urban life: Fran Abrams visits a school in a deprived area which is motivated by its successes

INNER-CITY problems do not exist for the headteacher of Saltley School in Birmingham. Roger Coxon, who has spent the past three years in one of Britain's most deprived areas, prefers to talk of 'challenges'.

The 'challenges' faced by Saltley are certainly tough ones. Sandwiched between council estates, more than half of its pupils are entitled to free school meals.

One-third come from homes where no family member has a job, and Washwood Heath, the electoral ward where the school is based, has fewer vacancies than almost any area in the country.

'This environment doesn't give you very much hope. There's nothing much round here that says there's a lot going for you unless you make it for yourself,' Mr Coxon said. Saltley is the sort of school the Birmingham Education Commission is aimed at, but it is one step ahead. It is part of a pilot project under which staff and pupils set targets for improving results.

Two years ago, 4 per cent of the school's pupils gained five or more A-C grades at GCSE, making it one of the country's lowest-achieving schools. Last year the figure doubled to 8 per cent; this year it was 16 per cent. From being in 63rd place in the league of the city's comprehensives - almost the bottom - it is now 34th.

Improvements in staying- on rates have been just as spectacular. In 1991, 36 per cent of pupils stayed in education after they left the school at 16. Now the figure has risen to 64 per cent.

Transgressions in behaviour, attendance and school uniform have all been tackled. For encouragement, cash has been found to decorate almost the entire school, which dates back to 1928 and includes a make-shift dining hall built during the Second World War. The city council has even been persuaded to mend its leaking roof.

There are exhortations to staff and pupils to push harder. Notices are pinned up around the school: 'Amir and Shahed achieved 17 A-grades between them'; 'Art and design, year 11, 1993: 14 A- grades.' The staff news sheet urges: 'Success smells good] Breathe deeply, colleagues]'

Mr Coxon praises the commission chaired by Professor Ted Wragg, not least because it seems to promote much of what he and his staff are already doing. For him, the belief that his school is getting better every day has taken on what seems like an almost religious significance.

'Last night, Saltley was the best it could possibly be. That's a philosophical position. I can see what challenges we met yesterday, and when we get to tomorrow morning we will see where we have to get to by the end of the day. The important thing is that Saltley is an improving school,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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