Getting ship shape?

Bottom of the league tables it might be, but there's a wind of change and optimism in Hull under a new director and a council under pressure to regenerate. Sue Jones reports

Hull was one of Britain's best-kept wartime secrets. Although the city was heavily bombed, the strategic importance of its docks meant that it was only ever obliquely referred to in the press at the time as "a northern city". And its anonymity has stuck. When Cityimage, a public-private partnership, researched the nation's idea of Hull, it drew a blank. It wasn't that we took a dim view of the place; apart from a vague notion of a decline in fishing, we seemed to have no idea at all.

Today Cityimage has the job of putting Hull back on our mental map as a "Top Ten City", capable of competing with local rivals such as Sheffield and Leeds. A quick look around the city centre shows there is plenty to work with here.

Standing at the mouth of the River Hull and pointing out over the Humber estuary is The Deep, a hi-tech marine life, business and learning centre. It could soon become an architectural icon. Within five months of opening, it has attracted 500,000 visitors.

Or there's the new stadium that will be home to Hull's football and rugby teams while promoting amateur sports, community learning and health and fitness. Another of Hull's big projects is to upgrade public transport in the city centre and redevelop the area for retail, business and leisure, building a new home for the renowned Hull Truck Theatre. There is already a new shopping mall, the Princes Quay, a stunning piece of architecture in a former city-centre dock. Plus a marina.

And yet, mention Hull down south and people crack jokes. Like Liverpool, at the other end of the M62, people sense there is no point to the place any more, now that fishing has declined. Unless it can redefine its purpose.

While trade with Europe and the Baltic is expanding, Hull is 13th on the Government's list of most deprived districts. Unemployment is 6.7 per cent, twice the national average, while among the young it is higher still. Thirty per cent of pupils are on free school meals and more than half the children are dependent on means-tested benefits.

The population has declined by 14 per cent over the past 30 years to 253,400 as the more affluent have left for the surrounding villages.

And in July this year came political humiliation when the Audit Commission lambasted the City Council for its failure to take pressing political decisions, for interference by some elected members with the work of council officers, and with its failure to manage the housing stock efficiently.

Economic decline has exacted its toll in the city's schools. Only 11 per cent of people have a Level 4 qualification, equivalent to HND; only 60 per cent stay on to further education or training; school attendance is poor; and for the past six years the city has come bottom of the GCSE league tables. Although this year's results were the highest in its seven-year history, there is no disguising the disappointment that schools failed to break the 30 per cent top-grade barrier for the first time. The target was 32.03 per cent; the reality was 28.53 per cent. Eleven of the 15 secondary schools failed to meet the targets they agreed with the authority.

Inquiries, conferences and meetings have been arranged to pinpoint what went wrong and how schools can put things right. Peter Fletcher, the director of education, has written to all heads asking them to give evidence to a cabinet meeting next month behind closed doors. The education scrutiny committee may yet decide to invite heads and governors to their next meeting.

But this is no witchhunt. There is a realisation that no one has the answers to an under-achievement problem that seems part of the culture. Most heads and teachers are dedicated workers.

Martin Doolan, head of Kelvin Hall school and secretary of the city's secondary heads association, says teachers should be "justifiably pleased" that results have risen every year for the past six years. He has asked for a dialogue with council leaders to discuss how the barriers to raising achievement in schools can be overcome. But he emphasises the partnership approach, which everyone seems to accept is what is happening.

Andrew Percy, chairman of the scrutiny committee, says: "We are trying to be positive about it. We are looking at the strategic role of governors and heads in raising standards in education.

Pat Maguire, the NUT's regional officer, thinks that in the past Hull had a problem common to most unitary authorities in that governments of both parties encouraged them to take a corporate view of the world and to assume they had more power than they did - especially in education, where they did not understand the growing autonomy of schools and the role of governors. Thus, there has been a history of "a complete lack of consultation with the teacher workforce". Mr Maguire would like to see this improved.

Labour councillor Katrina Peet believes people in Hull are ambitious. Part of the problem, she says, is that in traditional work such as fishing, skills were not acquired by formal education and so were never formally recognised.

"Young men went to sea at 16 and it was tough, grinding, and lots of people died," she says. "They were very skilled people, but these were skills you learned on the job; you didn't need them before you went to sea - and that culture is very difficult to break."

There are many glimmers of hope, but it will be a long haul to net success.

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