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..but 'a corner has been turned' SEBYLINE:Kate Harrison

The West Midlands borough is struggling to escape from years of underachievement

The overwhelming message from the 64-page report is one of cautious optimism and even respect for the attempts being made to address the underachievement of the area's 45,700 school-aged children. The respect is mutual - unusually, those on the receiving end feel they were understood.

"We could have written it ourselves." The words of Bill Thomas, chair of the education committee, echo those of most staff at Shaftesbury House, the LEA's drab headquarters in West Bromwich High Street.

In contrast to the controversy surrounding the publication of the report by the Office for Standards in Education on its more prominent neighbour, Birmingham, the Sandwell draft report was returned without any changes. It describes an authority where during the early 1990s the drive to raise standards took "a poor second place to pastoral care," and where the "earnest desire to see its schools do better" had little impact.

However, inspectors acknowledge that their "hard judgment...is not one that the LEA would dispute" and their main findings is than "an important corner has been turned".

Mr Thomas agrees with their verdict. "I was a headteacher in this borough so I can speak from personal experience. The authority always had a caring ethos and the schools did have wonderful pastoral systems, but where I think we did move our eye off the ball was looking at academic rigour. That's very much back on the agenda now."

Sandwell is more easily identifiable by its place at the bottom of league tables at key stage 2 and GCSE than by its geographical position.

The area, made up of six traditional black country towns including Oldbury, Smethwick and Wednesbury, lacks an obvious centre. In 1996 more than half its households had incomes of under Pounds 10,000 a year.

Significantly for its position in league tables, it lacks the leafy suburbs of Birmingham or Leeds to boost results, and with a falling population, deprivation actually worsened between 1981 and 1991. Health statistics too paint a depressing picture of low infant birth weights, poor diet, high levels of heart and lung disease, and early death for many adults.

Unemployment is well above average, yet the legacies of a once-booming industrial economy include low expectations of education and poor levels of participation post-16.

As the inspectors state in their second paragraph: "Sandwell's pupils and schools need the best help possible...disadvantage is multiple, widespread and worsening...the efforts of schools to raise expectations and to push for high achievement need, therefore particular rigour, sensitivity and persistence. "

Kate Harrison is the BBC education correspondent for the West Midlands

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