Why do schools in Newport, despite problems of unemployment and poverty, perform so well? It's all to do with the way people interact, says Hilary Wilce
Spend time in schools in Newport, Monmouthshire, and you hear the same phrase repeated again and again: "good relations". As in: good relations between schools, between teachers, and between schools and the local authority.
It is, local people say, the key reason why this geographically small local authority, which came into existence in 1996 when Gwent was disbanded, has been able to improve so much and develop new ideas. Linda Thomas, the authority's associate adviser for maths, says: "Whatever you do, everyone always wants to be involved. You never get just a few schools turning up to meetings: they all do."
Newport has a couple of top-notch secondary schools and is home to various electronics companies, as well as the Statistics and Patent Offices. Yet its educational soil is not naturally fertile. In a city that was once dominated by its docks and steel plant, there are many areas of deprivation and under-achievement. Unemployment is high and one ward in the city has the highest child poverty in Wales.
Within this context, the authority's progress in boosting basic skills is striking. A report published last year on the advisory service by the Audit Commisssion and Estyn, the inspectorate for education and training in Wales, says pupils' performance at key stages 1 and 2 has improved faster than the Welsh average since 1997. Newport is also the first LEA in Wales to have all its primary schools achieving the Basic Skills Agency Quality Mark.
Chief education officer David Griffiths is proud of the authority's progress: "We've majored on the early years and trying to get it right when young, and this has shown a dividend in results. At key stage 1 we punch massively above our weight."
He adds: "We've been able to set a large number of children on a path where they are engaged with their learning from the earliest age." The authority uses the Reading Recovery scheme to pick up poor readers and nurture groups for primary-age children considered in danger of failing. It is also happy to try out innovative ideas like the forest school attached to Duffryn infants and junior schools (see page 6), which allows children to explore and learn in woodland adjacent to the school.
So the situation looks good in the infants. But, says Mr Griffiths:
"Getting improvement in key stages 3 and 4 is more problematical." To tackle this area, the authority is looking at ways of providing an alternative curriculum for disaffected youngsters, and using intervention programmes to keep pupils up to speed.
A numeracy acceleration programme for key stage 3 runs in seven out of eight secondary schools (the eighth is trying a different model), giving more than 300 borderline Year 7 pupils a chance to catch up. Pupils are withdrawn for an hour a week, and work in small groups to go over the basics. The scheme provides back-up materials for parents and aims to make maths fun by using games and puzzles. "We cover all sorts of things, little tricks they've missed," says advisory teacher Nicky Thomas. "They come in saying they can't do it, but their confidence grows in leaps and bounds and we see results fast. Some go up a whole set."
And they seem to love it. One head of maths was astonished when she heard a group of pupils shooting past her in the corridor, saying: "Yes! It's maths!"
The authority is also breaking ground in its work with computers. A few years ago Newport had difficulties with its ICT provision. But thanks to Edward Pryce, an energetic young ICT adviser, and some bold decisions, the situation has been transformed. The authority now runs a managed ICT service, and three out of every four secondary schools and more than nine in 10 primary schools buy into it.
Two thousand computers have been placed in schools. Support is provided by local authority technicians; everyone has the same system; and hardware is leased so that schools can get new computers every three years. Organising it this way means some loss of autonomy for schools (a committee decides annually which software can go on to the system), but the benefits are uniformity, economy, fast help and new equipment.
Schools can now use computers imaginatively and effectively. At Malpas Church in Wales junior school, for example, classrooms have been remodelled to allow access to banks of computers; if the terminals are oversubscribed, children can go off to another classroom in search of a vacant one. The school runs a buddy system, pairing older pupils with younger ones, to make sure everyone acquires a raft of computer skills. It has also reworked its timetable into a fortnightly rota of formal and less formal learning, to ensure that equipment is used efficiently. As a result, computers are integrated into everyday learning, with children deciding for themselves when and how to use them.
"We never say, 'Do this on the computer,' we always say something like, 'Now present your findings in an interesting way,'" says Malpas head Richard Jones, who has won an award for exemplary practice in ICT from Becta, the communi-cations and technology agency. "It's as important for children to know when not to use a computer as when to use one."
The authority, which has 21,000 pupils and an annual budget of pound;90 million, is about the Welsh average in size, but has a high proportion of advisers and advisory teachers. They are well known in schools, and are not above rolling up their sleeves and teaching a lesson if that kind of support is called for. Estyn rated them "excellent".
Good relationships are marred a little from time to time only over questions of funding. Like other LEAs, Newport has problems with resources and budgetary changes. There is a question mark over a number of programmes, such as those working with young people on the brink of exclusion. "But the point about Newport is we know our schools very, very well and they know us well," says David Griffiths. "We have a mature dialogue and good relationships. It works very well."
INNOVATIONS ON SHOW
Newport City Council has been chosen as the featured authority at Wales Education 2004. You can visit the Newport Feature Area in the centre of the exhibition hall to view its innovations first-hand