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Armed for battle

For an area under economic siege, improving results are the best response. Anne Horner reports

Caerphilly is a place of contrasts - depressed valleys towns and lush hilltops. It has a fascinating past. Ask someone what the name means and they are likely to say crumbling cheese, or perhaps castles, a reference to the superb Caerphilly Castle, one of the great medieval fortresses of western Europe. And then, there's the industrial heritage. The area was a leading mining area.

Most of the collieries closed in the 1980s, the last - Penallta colliery near Hengoed - in 1991. Empty mines have left a legacy of low aspirations in a very deprived area. Employment is now high, but it has one of the highest levels of economic inactivity in the UK.

David Hopkins, the director for education and leisure, does not seek to make such factors excuses for poor performance. "The social context in which we work defines our task rather than limits our expectations for educational success," he says. "Countering the effects of disadvantage will ensure that poverty does not inevitably lead to failure."

The authority covers three main valleys: Rhymney, Sirhowy and Ebbw. It includes remote upland communities such as Abertysswg, Fochriw and Rhymney as well as the urban centres of Blackwood, Risca, Ystrad Mynach and Caerphilly.

The three most deprived areas are New Tredegar, Aberbargoed and Darran Valley to the north. Levels of deprivation are higher than in Wales as a whole for income, employment, health and education; and Caerphilly has 19 Community First areas, which receive funding because of the high levels of deprivation.

Its problems are typical of an area of declining industry, but it also has the same problems as rural authorities, such as access and transport. As June Davies, the borough's 14 to 19 adviser, says: "There is a strange mixture of valleys and rural areas. Sometimes you forget how rural some of our areas are."

Now culture change is on the agenda. "It is about getting people back into the rhythm of working," Mrs Davies says. "A lot of it is about confidence-building. Maybe people were made redundant from heavy industries and are finding it quite difficult to get back into the workforce. Maybe they have low skills."

Caerphilly was created in 1996 from parts of two district councils and two county councils, Mid Glamorgan and Gwent. "It was a particularly difficult area to pull together," says Mr Hopkins. "The cultures and practices have been so different. Gwent was a tertiary system, Mid Glam had an 11 to 18 system, there is an 11 to 18 school in the Islwyn area and there are two FE colleges. It doesn't make any sense in terms of strategic planning.

"We started from a very low base in terms of pupil attainment and participation in leisure activities, a legacy of the socio-economic profile of this area."

But progress is being made. "We have made really good improvements in pupil attainment with significant improvements in key stage 2 and 3 tests," he says. "We have to work really hard at key stage 4. We have put a lot of investment in further down the system and it will work its way through."

He speaks proudly of people working their socks off. "A huge amount has been done in terms of raising pupil confidence, but you cannot measure that."

Frustration with "simplistic" performance measurement is a theme to which he returns. "It's no good looking at us in terms of some authorities such as Ceredigion, Powys and the Vale of Glamorgan," he says.

For instance, Caerphilly finds itself in the bottom quarter of the Welsh attendance league but is asking the regulator at the Wales audit office to look at the borough in UK terms. "We are similar to some authorities, particularly in the south Wales valleys," he says, "but we want the regulator to look at us in a UK context. Instead of being 20th out of 22 we would be perhaps 90th out of 150, a much better place to be."

Progress has been made in tackling the number of surplus places in primary schools, and secondaries are to follow.

In an Estyn inspection this year, the quality of education in schools was found to have improved significantly since 1997. Pupil attainment is improving faster than in Wales as a whole, and the performance gap between the council and other local authorities in Wales continues to narrow. Since 1997, the proportion of teaching judged satisfactory, unsatisfactory or poor fell substantially, while there was a very substantial increase in the proportion of teaching assessed to be good or very good.

Of 71 primaries re-inspected, 93 per cent have improved the proportion of teaching judged to be good or very good. Fifteen of the 16 secondaries have been reinspected; 14 improved the proportion of teaching deemed to be good or very good.

Already there are plenty of achievements worth shouting about. Mr Hopkins says that the "upward trend in pupil achievement is testament to the way the authority and schools have worked together".

Awards are trickling in. The music service has won three UK gongs, while the parks service recently won two silver gilt Royal Horticultural Society awards. This week pupils from Blackwood comprehensive represented Wales in the UK final of the Young Enterprise competition, while Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Caerffili won the first-ever Welsh healthy school award.

And what of the future? Could the next big thing be tourism? It might sound ridiculous, but 80 per cent of the borough is countryside. As Mr Hopkins says: "We have probably got more to offer than we have marketed."

Watch this space.

Costumes: Cosmeston Medieval Village

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