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Pupils catch up with skills

Drive boosts standards, but experts warn effects may not last, reports Felicity Waters

Basic skills programmes only available in Wales have helped to raise standards among underachieving children, according to local education authorities. However, there is concern that the effects may not last if the schemes are cancelled.

Initiatives such as the "catch-up" programme, which have helped children get up to speed in maths and reading, are open to all schools through special grants from the Assembly government and Basic Skills Agency.

Funding is also available for schemes to engage disaffected youngsters at key stage 4 and for after-school clubs.

Robert Smith, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, told a Llandrindod conference on school improvement this week that initial research into the schemes, which have been running for three years, had produced promising results.

He said: "The response from local authorities is that extra funding has been invaluable, and the schemes have been particularly useful in helping underachieving pupils."

As well as discussing innovative programmes to boost basic skills, representatives from the Assembly government, local education authorities and other educational bodies also assessed the value of bigger-picture policies that are designed to improve standards, such as integrated children and education services.

Strong partnerships between schools, social services and the health profession are at the heart of improving standards, according to the chief of one of the few integrated local authority children's departments in Wales.

Chris Abbott, director of education and children's services at Merthyr Tydfil, said providing a one-stop shop for families made sense, particularly in smaller authorities with higher levels of poverty.

Mr Abbott said he was a great believer in agencies working together to tackle issues such as exclusion and child protection, and that it was a key factor in improving standards in schools.

"Having an integrated service is all about providing a seamless web of support," he said. "Having good links with heads, child protection and voluntary groups means we can help families better when they need us."

The principle of an integrated service is still in its infancy in Wales, with only a handful of authorities pursuing such a partnership approach to children's services.

Last week TES Cymru (November 4 issue) reported concerns that Rhondda Cynon Taf council, which pioneered the integrated children and education service, had once again separated them into two different departments. However, the principle of multi-agency working is being strongly pursued in England following the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie .

Mr Abbott said the process could be demanding and difficult, but the benefits were starting to be felt.

As well as discussing new initiatives, the role of teachers in raising standards was not forgotten at the conference, which was organised by the NFER. David Reynolds, professor of leadership and school effectiveness at Exeter university, told delegates: "The way teachers teach is the most important factor. And schools should also learn from good practice within their own vicinity before following examples in other schools."

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