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Boost for special projects

Grants will continue for schemes to help the disadvantaged but will it be enough?

FUNDING TO continue the broad purposes of the Assembly government's Raise programme beyond 2008, and further boost children's educational attainment in some of Wales's poorest communities, was announced this week.

However, there was no mention of how much money would be available to sustain the projects that are showing early signs of raising literacy and numeracy in schools with high levels of disadvantage.

Findings from a three-year evaluation which began in March, inspections by the Welsh inspectorate Estyn and the experience of schools will determine how future funding is "best deployed to the best effect", the government said.

Meanwhile, calls have been made for the Raise funding programme to be extended to help other disadvantaged pupils who are not in a school where 20 per cent or more of pupils are entitled to free school meals, which was the initial criteria.

An interim evaluation report into the Raise programme by an independent contractor will be released in December and a final report is expected in December 2009.

Former education minister Jane Davidson announced in April last year that pound;32 million would be given over two years to eligible schools in a bid to attack socio-economic disadvantage and underachievement. But earlier this week fears were widespread that the effects of the Raise programme would be wasted if the Assembly government halted funding next year.

A report released by Estyn last week noted that most schools had not planned to sustain the Raise schemes if the government funding ended, despite using the unexpected grants effectively.

The National Union of Teachers Cymru predicted schools would be forced into abandonning projects because they would not be able to afford to keep them going on their budgets.

David Evans, secretary of the NUT Cymru, said: "Funds must be made available to allow work to continue and build on the benefits of the past two years.

"The Assembly government will say that staff have been trained to continue the work, but the school budget is already limited and the type of projects can only be enhanced with sufficient extra money."

Schools were selected for the Raise attainment and individual standards in education grants in 2006 on the basis of 20 per cent or more of pupils being entitled to free school meals. They were asked to prepare two-year plans for the use of the funds.

Many of the 637 eligible schools used it to employ more teachers and support staff. The hope was that literacy and numeracy skills among disadvantaged children would improve and the effects would be felt in the long-term.

The Assembly government was keen to see the money being used to promote its social justice agenda. But there was some criticism that the way it has been distributed was unfair and had passed over many needy children.

Mr Evans said the Assembly government should now look at how any new funding could be used to help other disadvantaged children, not just those in schools with 20 per cent or more of the roll receiving free school meals.

But Estyn cites other problems with the Raise programme, essentially in the planning. Schools, it says, were not given enough time to plan for the first year.

It says most schools have now set up a range of projects and the majority of pupils are "responding positively to opportunities provided for them", but it is a "serious concern" that schools have not planned thoroughly enough to sustain the benefits of projects when Raise funding is discontinued.

Many schools, it says, simply plan to incorporate the additional costs of projects into their budgets, but this, say inspectors, is a "significant shortcoming" in their planning for sustaining the benefits of the grant.

Mr Evans says Estyn should be recommending to the Assembly government that Raise funding is continued beyond the two year timeframe.

"Given that Estyn has found that most schools have embarked on good projects and provided members of staff with good training, it should recommend that this is a project that needs to be enhanced and extended to look at ways disadvantaged pupils all over Wales can benefit," he said.

Estyn raised other concerns in its report on the impact of Raise funding, including the poor tracking of pupils' performance and a lack of awareness about regional Raise co-ordinators. Inspectors also said local authorities were not working closely enough with schools to co-ordinate activities within their area.

Professor David Reynolds, a Wales-based academic from Plymouth University, said the initiative should be continued over a longer term to establish whether the extra funding has had an impact on pupils' performance.

"It's clear that schools have been doing good things with this money but because it's only two years, of which one might have been a planning year for many schools, it's far too short a time-span. You need one year to plan, two years to do it and another two years to evaluate," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Assembly government said: "The evaluation exercise as a whole will be invaluable in informing long term policy aimed at tackling the links between deprivation and pupils' low attainment."

Raising the bar

The variety of schemes started as a result of Raise funding include extra staff to coach disadvantaged and underachieving pupils, after-school clubs and initiatives for improving attendance and team-building. Estyn inspectors saw most secondary schools have also provided opportunities for key stage 4 pupils to experience an extended curriculum and some schools have funded a learning coach, as the Learning Pathways 14-19 initiative recommends. One has set up home visit for parents who have been "reluctant partners" with the school.

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