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The regeneration game

Quality education is vital to creating a modern, vibrant city where people want to live, says Jonathan Crossley-Holland. He explains why to Susan MacDonald

Jonathan Crossley-Holland walks to the window of his elegant office in Sheffield's high-Victorian Town Hall to point out the new buildings that have changed the face of the city centre.

"I agree with those who a few years ago would have considered it a depressing place," he says, "but a pound;600 million development of the city centre is under way and much has changed already."

Ahead lies the newly opened Winter Gardens, a cleverly designed giant hothouse. Beyond it, a new hotel is going up. A shopping area stretches away to the left and to the right are the modern buildings that make up Sheffield Hallam University. As director of education, he says he is extremely concious that education is one arm of the regeneration of the whole city.

His vision is of an approach which will see schools across Sheffield co-operating to learn from each other and link with the city's resources, which include two universities, theatres, museums and galleries. "We are trying to create successful neighbourhoods, and the two essentials for achieving this are the quality of housing and the quality of schools. A decent place to live and a decent school make people want to live there."

Not that achieving this will be easy. Crossley-Holland says the city - the fourth largest in England with a population of 500,000 - is unusual in the degree of the polarisation it contains. "The south west area sees some of the most affluent areas in Yorkshire. But we also have some of the most deprived wards in the country.

"Comprehensives in the south-west (of the city) have outperformed local private schools at A-levels, partly because they are good schools but also because they have the advantage of serving a highly educated, supportive community."

Crossley-Holland, 55, went to an independent school himself, Brighton College, and his father was headteacher of one, but he says the independent sector is not a model for public education.

To improve the quality of education in deprived areas he has taken tough decisions that include shutting three schools and starting again. "We now have three fresh-start schools - two secondary and one primary. Their situation was unacceptably poor and we had to do something about it. One of these, Fir Vale, is now the most successful fresh-start school nationally, going from 390 pupils as a secondary in 1998 to more than 700 now. That is because our radical changes met parents' needs." Hinde House, opened in September, became a school for 3 to 16-year-olds, taking in a failing primary. The only one of its type on mainland Britain, it now has 1,400 pupils.

His vision includes a new way of thinking among teachers. "Heads are now saying that they must run a successful school but also that they have a responsibility to be part of a wider education system in Sheffield." He says standards are still low but there is a buzz and excitement among those working to change this. "We battle every day with families who don't value education. That requires energy and commitment."

He also finds the continuting public services debate depressing and too London-dominated.

"There have been huge improvements. By next year in Sheffield, one child in four will be in new or refurbished school accommodation - a process that started in 1998 - and both teaching and leadership qualities have hugely improved.

"However, the debate feeds the view that nothing can change because it looks at the failure to meet targets, rather than at how far our inner-city secondary schools have come in the past four years to meeting them."

An inspection of the authority was carried out last spring by the Office for Standards in Education. While the 1999 report heavily criticised the approach of the LEA and council, the 2002 one states that the LEA's strengths now significantly outweigh its weaknesses.

However, the Ofsted report also states that the main improvements have been in the secondary schools and that "as the LEA acknowledges, overall improvement in primary schools is still too low". Also "school attendance remains stubbornly low, and the rate of exclusions remains a problem".

He adds: "In previous generations not much thought was given to education. Children left school at 14 and went straight into the steel and metal-working factories.

"Today, Sheffield still produces the same amount of steel but it's done by a handful of people. Now the generation of jobs depends on expansion and inward investment. Education is a key determinant for companies seeking to locate here."

He says the majority who skip school do so with parental approval. "We are engaged in a campaign with primary and secondary parents - many of whom are long-term unemployed - to try to engage them in their children's education.

"We do truancy sweeps with the help of the police. More importantly we are trying to change the curriculum on offer for 13 to 16-year-olds because we believe the national curriculum has not served them well. There is a strong argument that the content and style of teaching needs changing." Strong ideas which link in with his aim to create specialist secondary schools and a sixth-form college.

"I am in favour of a more vocational approach. A Sheffield apprenticeship scheme would engage 13-year-olds in a curriculum based partly in school, partly as work placement and partly in college. We are not meeting youngsters' needs at the moment. By learning skills while still at school, we feel there is a good chance of their being taken on in a good, qualified job."

He copes with policy pressures well but talks readily about his family. One of his three children is a 10-year-old girl who suffers from Down's Syndrome. His face lights up when he talks about her. "She is such a happy child, we don't regret for one moment having her, and it does give you a different take on what is really important in life."

And does he have hobbies? A slight grimace. "I love sailing, but the fact that the boat is in the garage shows my work allows me no time for it."

Back to work pressures: "It's strange how you feel your efforts are not getting anywhere, and then suddenly it all begins to move forward."

And that is how he feels now.

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