Head's iron will gives steel losers new hope

Despite job losses and poverty pupils respond to dedicated teaching

Darren Evans & Nicola Porter

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It has been immortalised as Black Friday - the day 780 steelworkers' jobs were lost at Ebbw Vale.

But on February 1, 2001, when Dutch-owned company Corus announced the closure of the works, the town made an amazing fightback starting with improvements in education and training.

For generations young people, particularly boys, went to school safe in the knowledge that if they failed their exams, they could, like their dads, go to the steelworks and have a job for life.

But as unemployment soared in the town built on steel, education was increasingly seen as the only way out of poverty.

Colin James, head of Glyncoed Comprehensive, could not be more proud of his staff and pupils and their "can do" culture.

The school's transformation began before the steel making became part of the history books in the valley town.

It has gone from an average 11-14 comprehensive to one of the nation's most successful and popular schools. Since it became an 11-16 school in 1999, Glyncoed has been among the top-performing schools in Wales for GCSE results, despite high levels of pupil poverty and no extra funding.

The school clearly bucks trends and is so transformed, more pupils gained eight A*-C grades than the number of pupils gaining five A*-Cs at four of Blaenau Gwent's other secondary schools'.

It is so good it is one of five in South Wales featured in a series of books on successful schools worldwide. Professor David Egan, from University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, researched the schools as part of an international study.

Based on his own school's success, Mr James firmly believes the correlation between school funding and educational success is not clear- cut. "A school is about people and values," he said. "Cash does help, but it's not the be-all and end-all as far as total achievement is concerned." For Mr James, high-quality teaching is the most important factor for success.

The school had a good record at key stage 3, and he says staff were determined to prove themselves at key stage 4 when the school expanded. "The teaching staff really goes that extra mile with the kids," said Mr James.

"I think it makes up for some of the shortcomings in family life. School is the one constant the kids have in their lives."

Mr James believes schools must do the best with what they have, and make the most of their resources.

But any extra funding the school does receive is pumped back into teaching and learning.

Glyncoed has had a small amount of Communities Focused Schools funding, around Pounds 6,000 a year, which has been used to set up a successful after- school activity scheme called "tie-off time".

Teachers give up their free time to offer activities including sports training, creative and artistic clubs and extra academic help. Mr James said the reward has been improved achievement levels.

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Darren Evans & Nicola Porter

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