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Rebirth on the Usk

It's now a city and growing fast, regenerating industry and infrastructure. And schools are feeling the benefits, says Biddy Passmore

Newport is the first city you come to after crossing the Severn into Wales.

It is also Wales's youngest city and growing fast. The population may be a relatively modest 140,000 today, but it is set to grow by 10 per cent over the next five years and by 20 per cent in the next decade.

The civic pride that underpinned its successful application for city status, granted in 2002, is fast taking physical form. The Riverfront theatre and arts centre on the banks of the River Usk, opened last October, has been named Building of the Year 2005 by a consortium of Welsh authorities - the second consecutive year Newport has won the prize. A new 25-metre, eight-lane swimming pool opened just a month ago at the Newport International Sports Village. The new Celtic Manor resort will host the prestigious Ryder Cup in 2010. Much of the old docks area is home to bulldozers and cranes as a huge regeneration project begins.

As Bob Bright, aptly-named leader of the council, announced last month, Newport will in the next five years undergo its biggest single transformation in modern history - including the largest schools renewal programme in Wales.

A new team at the helm of education is working hard to ensure that all aspects of the department's schools and other services match the excellent standard of the best. "We are a growing city; we need a growing education system to go with it," says Bob Poole, cabinet member for young people's services.

The authority is not short of challenges. It may now be a city on the up, with a booming service and electronic sector, but it lies at the mouth of a mining valley and still bears the scars of the steel town it was. The closures in manufacturing industry have left many inhabitants not just unemployed but demoralised. A more recent challenge has come from the dispersal of asylum-seekers: Newport has the third largest number of such pupils (150) after Cardiff and Swansea.

Formidable pockets of deprivation coexist with wealthy areas, often separated by just the width of a road. Five of the city's wards are among the 100 richest in Wales but four are among the country's most deprived.

It is therefore not surprising that the success of Newport's primary schools, with results at key stage 1 and 2 among the best in Wales, should be followed by less glowing results at secondary level, when the attendance and behaviour problems that often accompany disadvantage kick in.

What is more surprising is that some of the authority's most successful schools are in the most disadvantaged areas. We look at two - Duffryn infants and Lliswerry high school - in the following pages.

Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, has in recent years rated both the authority's early years and its school advisory services as excellent, with good prospects of improving even further. But the inspectors were less complimentary about the shortage of places within the borough for children with special needs. They said pupils' attendance and behaviour needed more attention.

The authority's promotion of a system of assertive discipline in schools had not succeeded in bringing down high rates of temporary and permanent exclusions in schools, they said. They also wanted to see more behavioural support for pupils transferring from primary to secondary school, plus better reintegration of excluded pupils.

The new director of education, Sharon Menghini, is well placed to guide action on these issues. Armed with experience and qualifications in special needs and specific learning difficulties, she came to Newport after some years as children's services manager in Shropshire and assistant director of education in Dudley, West Midlands, where she revitalised the service after a poor Ofsted report.

"I am passionate about children and education," says Ms Menghini. She is working on a doctorate on children's services, and admits to some frustration that her educational responsibilities in Newport do not cover social care. "But I'm working very hard to make sure the right links are there."

She and her deputy Terry Mackie, who arrived in December to take charge of the merged inclusion and improvement service, cannot yet be specific about their plan of action on behaviour and special needs. They need time for consultation. But the general direction is clear.

The key will be early identification of problems and early action to tackle them, to reduce the need for both statements and exclusions. They are in favour of nurture groups in primaries and arrangements to help "at-risk"

pupils with the transfer to secondary schools.

They also want to see fewer special needs pupils forced to leave the borough for schooling - a legacy from the days when Newport formed part of Gwent.

"We want to educate our own children in Newport schools," says Ms Menghini.

But, rather than building a new school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, the city is likely to opt for greater use of units in mainstream schools.

Moves are likely to bring about agreement among heads to transfer pupils in danger of exclusion. That is the practice in neighbouring Torfaen, which has virtually eradicated permanent exclusions. And who was leading Torfaen's behaviour support policy from 1998 to 2002, when that was achieved?

One Terry Mackie.

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