How to get children back in class

Truancy is lowering standards and increasing crime. Meanwhile many adults are lacking essential skills.
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The Independent Online

With the revival of My Fair Lady thrilling audiences in the West End of London, its deeper significance does not fall on deaf ears.

With the revival of My Fair Lady thrilling audiences in the West End of London, its deeper significance does not fall on deaf ears. Eliza Doolittle might have lived in Edwardian times, but even today there is still no doubt that a good education is the best route out of deprivation.

The figures make grim reading. According to the latest schools performance tables, 27 per cent of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) scored below target GCSE grades. All but two had a classified neighbourhood renewal area within their boundary.

Predictably, truancy and exclusion are also highest in underprivileged districts. Permanent exclusions increased threefold in 1997, to a peak of 12,700, and it is estimated that one million children miss a half-day of schooling without permission each year. Unsurprisingly, underachievement is the result. In 2000, only 10 per cent of persistent truants in year 11 obtained five or more GCSEs, compared with 58 per cent of those who never truanted. Crime is also a factor. Nearly two-thirds of school-age young offenders sentenced in court have been excluded, or truant significantly.

Fortunately, much is already being done. Particularly successful have been Education Action Zones (EAZs) and the Excellence in Cities programme, helping to modernise inner-city schools and release the potential of young people through methods such as mentoring and innovative ways of learning. EAZs have achieved improvement at 4 per cent above the national average on Key Stage 2 maths, improvement in GCSE results at twice the rate outside the zones and have significantly improved attendance.

The Fresh Start provision and National Literacy and Numeracy strategies have also had a tremendous impact, as Argyle Primary School in London reveals. In 1993, it faced a broad range of problems, including unsatisfactory teaching in core subjects and an average annual attendance of only 72 per cent. A new head took over the school and introduced a radical programme of change, giving clear leadership and involving parents and staff in principal decisions. Results for Key Stages 1 and 2 have improved dramatically. Attendance is now at 90 per cent and the school received an outstanding Ofsted report in 1997.

And, as Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, points out, successful schools such as this reap benefits far beyond attendance and qualifications. "In some of Britain's most deprived areas, schools are one of the few solid centres of community life. And they are one of the few stable factors in the lives of some of Britain's most disadvantaged children," she explains.

Further measures to be introduced by the Government include extending the Sure Start programme to cover a third of infants by 2004. This involves working with parents to encourage them to work with their offspring to help with the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children. In addition, extra work is to be done with vulnerable five- to 13-year-olds, and a Connexions Service has also been established to keep 13- to 19-year-olds in learning, giving priority to improving school attendance. These young people will have access to personal advisers, providing them with a tailored service to meet their individual needs.

From 2002, over 500 secondary schools will introduce electronic registration. A greater number of "truancy sweeps" to pick up youngsters who should be in school will also be evident, as well as more teachers, and projects in schools designed to improve pupils' motivation and attendance.

By 2001, 1,000 on-site Learning Support Units will provide short-term teaching and support outside the classroom for pupils at risk of exclusion. A school in Tower Hamlets, an area notorious for under-achievement, has already benefited greatly from this. Through supplementary teaching, it has significantly improved numeracy and literacy at GCSE level.

Much more needs to be done, of course. Reversing the decline in education is a mammoth task, tackling deep-rooted problems, and has consequently been set as a 10-year programme by the Government as opposed to the short-term attempts at solutions of the past. Estelle Morris explains, "Only by ensuring that everyone receives a high quality education can we have opportunity for all, social justice, and rising prosperity."

Portway Primary School

Portway Primary School in Newham is located in a deprived neighbourhood. Many of its 600 pupils are from disadvantaged backgrounds and 10 per cent live in temporary accommodation. Several students are from refugee families, which can pose language problems in class. The school has a high mobility rate, with a pupil turnover of 20 per cent. Poor results combined with some behavioural issues had been a typical feature for the school.

Portway is just one of the schools in the area benefiting from increased financial support, enabling under-achievement and exclusion to be tackled. Derek Stritton, the headteacher, is delighted with the progress made so far. "The funding allows us to implement various initiatives and we are already making progress," he says. In just two years there has been a 50 per cent improvement at Key Stage 2. Key Stage 1 results now exceed the national average.

Extra learning assistants have been hired to help year 6 pupils as they undergo their Key Stage 2 tests. "Not all are able to reach the required level four in English, maths and science. The assistants are targeted on those who need extra help," says Mr Stritton. It is estimated that 15 more pupils than usual will attain the necessary level this year.

Other measures are equally successful. Pupils now receive a big "Homework Bag", which acts as a reminder to take work home in the evenings. Homework clubs have been set up and can be used outside school hours. A family support worker is also on hand, working with parents who struggle to help children learn. In addition, breakfast clubs are open for an hour before school and provide a free, healthy start to the working day. "Many won't get this at home and it is a great way to get kids into school," says Mr Stritton.

"The response has been very positive," he continues. "Everyone is benefiting ­ the children, the parents and the entire community."