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So how do Cumbrian sheep qualify?

Excellence in Cities covers rural areas too. Biddy Passmore explains

arnet in London and the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe hardly sound like hotbeds of deprivation. Nor could they be described as inner city. But they have their pockets of deprivation. That is why areas within each are included in the Excellence in Cities scheme as excellence clusters, to bring resources to deprived children who would otherwise miss out.

Excellence clusters were added to the scheme from September 2001 to meet criticism that it was failing to tackle some of the most disadvantaged.

"There are many schools with a very high proportion of deprived pupils that are not in the inner cities," points out John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association (SHA). In fact, the SHA says, two-thirds of deprived pupils live in areas not deemed disadvantaged.

There are now 44 clusters in operation, ranging from West Cumbria to Kent, involving nearly 200 secondary schools and more than 440 primaries. Some are in suburbs, some in market towns, some in new towns fallen on hard times. By May 2005, there will be 80 clusters, of which 42 will be what were once known as education action zones.

They are partnerships between groups of schools, their local education authority and other organisations. Most include between 12 and 15 primary and secondary schools, with a lead secondary that is usually a beacon school. All get at least pound;650,000 a year from Whitehall (about pound;140 per pupil) to pay for opportunities for gifted and talented pupils, for learning mentors, and for learning support units for disruptive pupils.

And then there is the "tailored strand" - a fourth stream of funding to tackle particular local issues identified by the schools. The Croydon-New Addington cluster contains one of the 50 most deprived wards in the country, where the average child can expect to live six years less than his counterpart born a mile up the road in leafy Selsdon. Crime and unemployment are high and health poor.

Here, the "tailored strand" pays for breakfast clubs in primary schools and a targeted scheme to improve attendance. Co-ordinators in each school work with pupils whose attendance falls between 80 and 90 per cent, talking to families, and producing "a real turnaround" in individual cases, says the cluster co-ordinator, Pat Holland.

In West Cumbria, a rural community cut off from the M6 by the hills of the Lake District, the problems are isolation and low aspirations. The old coal mining and iron and steel industries have gone; the only source of power and employment today is Sellafield. In some families, three generations have been blighted by unemployment.

"Cultural awareness" has been the cluster's special theme in its first two years. Artists and musicians have been introduced to widen horizons. This strand will now also be "opening minds" to include anti-sexism and anti-racism - important in an area where people from ethnic minorities are an eye-catching rarity.

Sixth-formers in the cluster's three secondaries have signed up to take Open University short courses in subjects such as robotics and astronomy, to get a taste of university-level study. But Stan Aspinall, former head of Cumbria's Whitehaven school and now the cluster's co-ordinator, says that learning mentors have made the biggest single difference in the schools.

The effectiveness of learning mentors is also highlighted in this month's report from Ofsted on the first 10 inspections of excellence clusters. In general, the inspectors found most clusters had made a positive start.

Provision in their schools was improving, with more opportunities open to disadvantaged pupils, and other pupils gaining from having their work less disrupted. But the rate of change was often slow and it was too early to see much improvement in exam results.

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