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It's enough to drive you to drink;Talkback

Initiatives to improve schools will fail unless there is recognition of community problems, says Mo Laycock.

On the last day of March, I spent half a morning driving round my school's catchment area to collect overdue GCSE projects for marking over Easter. The head of sociology accompanied me. As headteacher, I had written to parents saying that we would be in school during the holidays to receive their children's sociology projects.

Five pupils delivered their work on the appointed day. Three did not, hence the visits to their homes where we found:

* Pupil A, an able girl capable of at least five A-C results, in a state of distress as her elder sister had been jailed the previous week. She completed her project and handed it in two days later.

* Pupil B, an average student, had ripped up the letter from school, so her mother knew nothing of the missed deadline. When we arrived at 11.30am no one was up, but the mother invited us in and we agreed that the project would be completed by Good Friday.

* No one was in at the third pupil's home, so we put a note through the letter box. The project was not handed in by the extended deadline.

When I made a return visit to the home of pupil number 2, the mother offered me a glass of rum at 11.30am as "you look rather stressed, Mrs Laycock". I turned this down and reduced my stress instead by receiving the project.

I drove away wondering how many other heads were spending their holidays doing home visits collecting coursework. Why was I?

The answer is simple: Firth Park school is an inner city mixed comprehensive in an area of severe socio-economic deprivation. Despite coming out of "serious weaknesses" in 1997 with an excellent Office for Standards in Education report, we continue to be below national norms and are being targeted for extra LEA support. Hence our target of 20 per cent five plus A-C grades this year is vitally important to us.

Much as I applaud and support the Government's focus on inner city schools, there should be more of a sense of realism in areas where there are low parental expectations, where unemployment is rife, where life is often tough for families.

Without adequate parental support, young people will not cope with the pressures of GCSEs. Like other similar schools, we do all we can to encourage pupils to take responsibility for their learning, but we constantly struggle against a background of complacency, despair and poor parenting.

Since January this year we have provided Year 11 pupils with revision, study skills, time management and after-school classes in all subjects. From Years 7 to 11 we provide a range of after-school extra-curricular classes in leisure and study skills.

We are involved in every national and local educational improvement initiative to the point of being almost overwhelmed by them. We are an "improving school", but the pace of our improvements is clearly not in line with the Government's agenda. We will therefore continue to be monitored by the LEA and the DFEE as we are part of Sheffield's "education action zone".

My staff are up to these challenges; they are a hardworking, talented, creative and committed group, pulling out all the stops to motivate and encourage pupils to be successful.

We are not a "coasting" school; we are a school running at full speed and embracing the challenges of change. I cannot expect my staff to work any harder or to be more creative in their professional endeavours with pupils.

But we desperately need some recognition of the parental and community background which compounds our problems - and some real help for parents to find suitable employment to give them a reason to believe in themselves, their families and the potential of education. Without this, we will continue to struggle with national norms and at some stage I may find myself accepting the glass of rum at 11.30am.

Mo Laycock is head of Firth Park School, Sheffield

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