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Declaring war on disadvantage

A strategy to lift pupil achievement in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh is to go before the capital's education committee in two weeks. David Henderson reports on the surprising findings of 'Raising the Standard'. The measure of the task facing Alex Goodall and his staff at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh was put into perspective at the start of term. Of the intake from five local primaries, 100 of 114 children were below or well below national norms in reading and mathematics.

Mr Goodall commented: "There is a need for a huge shift in pupils' attainment levels. The trend has been variable but it is not getting any better. I am not criticising colleagues here but we need much more intervention in the primary school in order to bring about large scale improvement."

Mr Goodall, who was awarded an OBE earlier this year - a tribute to his staff, he says - chaired the working party on education set up by the Wester Hailes Partnership, a Government-backed urban regeneration programme set up in 1989. The partnership initially concentrated on housing and employment but began to focus on education two years ago.

Local people, Mr Goodall says, wanted to know more about schools and in particular about Wester Hailes Education Centre, once a model community school but was hit badly in the late 1980s and early 1990s as ambitious parents used new legislation on placing requests to send their children elsewhere.

Some of the working party's findings did not make comfortable reading, others were startlingly positive. Most striking of all was that pupils who lived in Wester Hailes performed with equal ability at Standard grade, irrespective of the school they attended. "The figures surprised me and my staff," Mr Goodall said. "It was a shock to many local parents just how good their local high school was. The placing request legislation is based on misinformation and myth."

Value-added measurements of performance show that Wester Hailes is one of the top performing secondaries in the former Lothian Region but less so in the upper school. Only 6 per cent of pupils went on to higher education, against 11 per cent from other schools. However, 12 per cent went on to further education, against 11 per cent from other local schools. Half the leavers found work immediately and a fifth went into youth training.

The figures on Standard grade performance persuaded the school to mount a recruiting campaign. Senior staff visited all households in the area with children in their final year of primary school. Mr Goodall says: "What we have been able to say, hand on heart, is we believe your child will do as well in public examinations as they will do in any other school."

Four years ago the roll stood at 328. It is now more than 500. Forty per cent of pupils used to go elsewhere but the figure is now around 25 per cent. In each of the past three years, intake projections were of around 70 pupils, yet more than 100 applied. So what is Wester Hailes doing right? It is well equipped and staffed (six above normal) but Raising the Standard declares: "Far too many of our children have low levels of literacy, low attainment, low self-esteem, low aspirations and poor exam results. Forceful action must be taken to turn this round, for the sake of the children and this community. "

Literacy levels are seen as the core issue. The partnership committee agreed in the summer to focus on reading in the first two years of primary school, following the success of a pioneering project in the equally disadvantaged Pilton area of the capital. Classroom assistants will be used to help teachers cover basic work.

A not unexpected consequence of social disadvantage is that more than half the Wester Hailes pupils need support because of learning or behavioural difficulties. One in three has "a considerable or major degree of difficulty".

Pupils at Wester Hailes are three times more likely to have problems than children across the city, have five times the level of learning difficulty of pupils at the favoured Royal High School and are 10 times more likely to have behavioural difficulties.

Such facts may be interpreted by parents in different ways but Mr Goodall believes they reinforce the argument that parents should send their children to a school that has the staff and background to address the issues. This term, the school has begun a campaign. Signs ask pupils to observe the three Cs: to be calm, considerate, co-operative. Classroom and corridor codes have also been introduced. "There is less noise, less distraction, more attentiveness and teachers are more relaxed," Mr Goodall says.

Raising the Standard has asked primaries to improve reading standards and to involve more parents. In secondary at Wester Hailes, the targets will include increasing numbers in homework clubs, extending a mentor scheme, and extra recruiting for study weekends. Training for staff is another priority. There is nothing special in employing initiatives which supply an impetus to do better. But why did it not happen before? Part of the answer, Mr Goodall believes, lies in the need for a political will. "That was absent before and in a democratic society you need political drive for any major change and we are riding that here," he remarked.

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