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Does the jigsaw fit together?;Opinion

Inner-city schools will have to be imaginative if Labour's 'Excellence in Cities' is to enhance the big picture, writes Mary Marsh.

TWO YEARS ago this month I, like the new Government, felt great optimism about education.

I had warned that we should expect more demands and direction to achieve higher standards and the optimism has been hard to sustain at times.

As pieces of the jigsaw have appeared, at times we have struggled to see the whole picture. Does it exist or are bits still being created? Can it fit together?

If, like me, you are a teacher in an inner-city secondary school targeted by the Excellence in Cities initiative you will be off on another of the Government's roller-coaster rides.

An initial response was needed by May 4 with the proposed local partnership to be confirmed a week later. Immediate plans must be in place by the end of July with a start date in schools for some activities in September. How much collaboration can be achieved between schools and across local authorities this year is uncertain.

Excellence in Cities is backed by real additional resources with evident understanding that this cannot be a short-term fix. Any changes and investment will need to be sustained for some years if they are to have lasting impact.

The proposals do not directly address the crucial issue of recruitment and retention of teachers and senior managers for inner-city schools. Already shortages in the service are felt most acutely here.

As with every approach to raising standards we are dependent on the capability and commitment of teachers in classrooms. Staff mobility can fragment the progress previously made.

The significance of class size and teaching load is not raised. Do we know whether it could make a difference to achievement to reduce them, as it does in independent schools with wider ability profiles?

Perhaps research into this could be piloted under rigorous conditions in one of the new small education action zones. I hope they will be free to take some risks and be truly innovative. Here is a real opportunity for the development of a pedagogy for the urban classroom as put forward by Richard Riddell (TES Opinion, April 9).

The concept of having learning mentors to work alongside teachers has the potential to meet enormous needs for students, parents and teachers. Many young people do not have an adult who can spend time with them to support their progress in school.

Their parents often want to help but they may need support and direction to do this. Teachers can be freed to focus their skills on learning and not have so much time and energy taken up being social workers and counsellors.

But where are the surplus teachers, social workers and youth workers who have the skill to do this, the wish to work in the inner city and can start in September? Induction and training will be another demand.

The development of learning support units in school will work if they are allowed to develop flexibly in response to the needs and the availability of space in each school. Used creatively and positively, with curriculum flexibility too, such units could be powerful agents of inclusion.

Programmes for gifted and talented students are not as they were presented in early press reports. During the school day they are intended to be part of the school's own provision. Excellence in the arts and sport should be recognised too.

It is in the extended day and beyond the school week and year that other initiatives could take place, just as some Saturday music schools still survive. University summer schools could widen the horizons of those in key stage 3 as well as older students. This will be an interesting challenge for lecturers.

Extension of the specialist schools programme is welcome as long as the additional resources are shared with a wider community of schools.

Rather than beacon schools, I would want to encourage centres of good practice in the inner city, which could be departments within schools. The demands on the whole school to be a beacon, and sustain high standards within an inner-city context is considerable, which is why some schools have not taken up the invitation.

It will be hardest to reach collective agreement on the learning centres to be based in schools as a facility for community and cross school use. The latter is likely to be virtual rather than real.

Six or eight centres in 16 London boroughs are not going to be available to all and will give an exceptional advantage to very few students. Schools are unlikely to have the surplus space for this with 80 workstations required - if building work is needed the impact will be delayed. Why not have smaller units in more schools including more communities?

There is much to be welcomed. The challenge will be to make the best use of the opportunities offered to really meet student needs in all inner-city schools and make the jigsaw fit coherently into the bigger picture.

Mary Marsh is head of Holland Park comprehensive in north London

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