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The art of regenerating estates;Social

The tower blocks may have gone but improving educational standards is still an uphill struggle, reports Steve Hook.

THE WESTER Hailes estate in Edinburgh was once a place to avoid - unless you were unfortunate enough to live there.

The first of its 24 tower blocks went up in 1969, mostly on farmland. Since then it has grown into the sort of estate synonymous with urban decay: too many homes served by too few facilities.

Wester Hailes Education Centre, with pupils aged 11 to 18, had more than its share of challenging children and poor results. Deputy principal Roy Beavis said its name had become associated with failure because of the reputation of the estate. Many parents sent their children elsewhere.

But over the past 10 years, it has been the subject of a major regeneration project, jointly backed by the local authority and business - the sort of co-operation now encouraged south of the border in the form of education action zones.

Investment has brought about a transformation. Eighteen of the high-rises have been razed and replaced with smaller buildings. Residents now feel safer and have found their once-isolated community attracting outsiders, drawn by the new bingo hall, cinema and improved shopping area.

The schools have played a key role. Parents have been taken on as classroom assistants. Older pupils have been helping younger children to read. The after-school activities programme, now attended by 40 per cent of pupils, has been expanded to include homework study clubs at weekends.

A separate project, the Breakfast Club, encourages primary children to attend school, giving them a place to eat together each morning.

Mr Beavis claims a positive atmosphere in his school has made it easy to retain teachers and pupil numbers at Wester Hailes have increased from 310 five years ago to more than 500 today.

There have been some encouraging exam results but, says the school, it is too early to tell whether academic performance will improve in the long-term.

The fact is that the social problems which face Wester Hailes's 12,000 inhabitants have proved too deep to be solved by initiatives within the estate itself.

"Superficially, the partnership has done a wonderful job," says Roy Beavis. "But we still have relatively high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. The Government stresses 'education, education, education' but it is difficult to raise expectations against a background of poverty.

"Fifty per cent of families are on less than pound;6,000 a year, which is not much more than a student is on.

"Forty per cent of pupils get help with clothing grants, 49 per cent get free school meals and 40 per cent are from single-parent families. We've noticed that when there is bad weather some pupils don't come to school because they don't have the clothing.

"The lesson to be learned for action zones is you can't parachute in with costly resources and hope that will fix it. Nor can you just come in with bright ideas.

"It is all to do with ownership. You must involve people in the way housing is managed and supported together with other facilities, including education."

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