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Pit school pulling back from brink

When local firms stepped in at Knottingley, a transformation began, writes Elaine Williams.

Terry Symons' cheery London accent is disorientating and his jauntily checked jacket is not what you would expect of a Pontefract pit manager. Collieries like Kellingley have traditionally spawned gruff Yorkshiremen but this is post-privatisation and the world is upside down.

Kellingley has shrunk dramatically. Its output might be one of the largest in Europe but its workforce has been reduced by two-thirds. Local unemployment is 20 per cent.

Terry Symons acknowledges the sense of hopelessness which he believes will remain unless young people can be fuelled by some faith in the future. Which is why, as the new pit manager, he readily accepted an invitation to visit Knottingley High School, the localcomprehensive.

What he saw there surprised him. Not only was the place obviously pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, it was providing facilities for local business as well: an adult training centre, a conference room, five computer rooms with a total of 130 PCs all linked to the Internet and equipped with video-conference facilities, a new cafe open to the public and a smart spacious reception area for meeting visitors.

RJB Mining, which owns Kellingley, began to see possibilities. The company gave Pounds 15,000 last year to help the school launch adult further education courses and is now considering making Knottingley High its training centre.

There were precedents. Understanding British Industry (UBI), Leeds United Football Club, Groundwork and the Schools Curriculum Industry Partnership (SCIP) all have offices in the school, which has raised Pounds 100,000 in direct contributions over the last 18 months.

Mr Symons felt the benefits to both school and RJB Mining were considerable. "If you get relationships building up between teachers and industry like this that can only be good for pupils," he said. "If pupils see businesses using their school it opens up their horizons, gives them a sense of pride."

When Paul Edwards took over as headteacher at Knottingley, none of these facilities existed. Over the years its roll had fallen from 1300 to 850. Truancy was among the highest in Wakefield.

There had been damage worth Pounds 6,000 to the site in the previous year. The dining room was poor so many children went off premises at lunchtime which caused difficulties in the nearby community.

"We had all the things associated with a failing school," said Mr Edwards. He immediately set out to raise money and involve local business and began bidding for European and national funds.

With money raised from local firms and Pounds 30,000 from the European Community's Social Regeneration budget, Mr Edwards has repaired the covered walkways and playgrounds, repaved the outside, installed picnic tables, planted trees, got rid of the litter, provided the IT and built the cafe to pupil specifications. Open for breakfast (which has helped to reduce late arrivals) and for visiting adults, the cafe is full, lively but orderly.

Mr Edwards believes that if pupils enjoy good facilities and see adults sharing them, their respect for school, and their performance, will improve. With the number of pupils passing five GCSEs grades A to C rising from 28 to 35 per cent in the last two years, his methods seems to be vindicated.

He said: "I told teachers we would achieve 40 per cent within two years of me taking the headship. They thought I was a lunatic. My critics say I would make a good secondhand car salesman, but this place needed a vision. I want it to be a centre for urban regeneration."

A disused gym given over to former pupil Jason King has been transformed and re-equipped by him to the tune of Pounds 20,000 to run his fitness centre. In return for this and the tenfold increase in business that it has brought about, Mr King takes aerobics classes for pupils and trains those such as 11-year-old Jonathan Cleuren who wants to be a ballet dancer.

Leeds United has been given office space and a base in the community in return for providing football coaching for girls. If the school's Pounds 200,000 National Lottery bid for a multi-use games area is granted, then the club will consider moving its advance centre (querying) to the school. "The spin-offs for the school and the community will be fantastic" said Darren Moore, the Leeds United trainer based at Knottingley.

Sponsorship has also provided the school with an electronic music room and Mr Edwards has re-introduced peripatetic music provision. "Music had died here," he said. Ben Wood, 15, the only brass player in the school, was pleased with developments. He stated: "Education is pushed a lot harder now. Before kids didn't really want to come here. Now they say it is the best school in the area."

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