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Staring into the pits;Actions zones

The collapse of the mining industry has depressed northern towns badly and affected their schools. Now rescue plans are afoot, writes Francis Beckett.

BARNSLEY is just the sort of area to have an education action zone. It is well down on the education league tables. Only 28.8 per cent of pupils get GCSE passes at grades A to C: the national average is 44.5 per cent. And 12.3 per cent leave school without any GCSEs, compared with 7.7 per cent nationally.

The area has been badly hit by the decline of coal mining. Social exclusion caused by poor qualifications, low skills and ill health is a serious problem. Companies are not attracted to the South Yorkshire town because of the low level of educational achievement of the workforce. Wendy Webster, head of policy development in education and leisure at Barnsley Council, says: "We need to improve our headline education results if we are to attract new investment into the town."

Last summer all parents in the borough were sent a questionnaire asking about their expectations of the schools. Of 5,000 replies, one in five wanted closer involvement. Parents meetings were held across the borough and parent focus-groups were established.

In June, several diverse and sometimes overlapping initiatives to raise education standards were brought under the umbrella of the Barnsley Education Partnership (BEP). The partnership - which includes the local training and enterprise council, Barnsley Health Authority, Barnsley College, Bretton College, Northern College, the Chamber of Commerce, Barnsley Business Education Partnership, the Prince's Trust and Barnsley Football Club - drew up a draft action plan that is the basis for its bids for two zones.

The first - successful in this week's awards - lies about three miles north of the town centre and has three secondary schools. It is in one of the most disadvantaged areas in the borough, close to a former mining community, with mainly council housing and no big source of employment now that the mines have closed. Secondary pupils' attainment is well below average and the number of exclusions is higher than in the rest of Barnsley.

Specialist teachers will be employed and others teachers trained in information and communications technology. The borough wants to develop an intranet as a means of linking schools and promoting good practice.

The partnership aims to raise attainment by tackling low esteem and low aspirations at school and in the community as a whole. Wendy Webster says:

"Bringing parents into the learning community means their children are more likely to grow up in an encouraging and supportive educational environment. Family learning - both parents and children - is at the heart of our community strategy."

The zone would establish a community college offering pre-and post-16 courses based in thePriory complex, which already has a secondary school and a multi-purpose centre used forvoluntary organisations, a homework club and adult education. There would be open community access. It would launch an assault on the culture that makes school an unwelcoming place for parents, either because staff do not want parents around or because parents have an antipathy towards school. As well as supporting their children's learning, parents would be encouraged to go into schools, perhaps being given training to enable them to help in the classroom.

The partnership intends to establish home-school contracts and a programme to enable parents to keep up with their children's learning. There will be mentoring schemes to advise both parents and children, and a programme for young people who have left school with no qualifications, some of whom will be parents, enabling them to resit GCSEs.

Additional specialist staff, particularly in ICT and literacy and numeracy skills, are expected to raise expectations and standards. The national curriculum will be modified to allow more time on employability skills. There will be homework clubs and a sports specialist school.

The second bid was unlucky this week but will be resubmitted at a later date. It covers an area of seven square miles south of the town centre and includes two council estates and two primary schools which the Office for Standards in Education says are in need of special measures. The aim here is to improve communication skills, not just information technology skills but also written and spoken communications, with an emphasis on foreign languages.

Nord Anglia Education is a leading partner in the bids. It will provide development training, in-service training, consultancy, cross-curricular developments and target setting, but it expects to be paid for any professional services it provides, and it anticipates a profit.

It will introduce to the partnership other commercial organisations which will give money, but it will only do this if it is a "real partner"; there must be enough paid work in it for the company. Shirley Wright, head of training and consultancy, says: "We're not a charity. We haven't large sums to contribute. If we have a role as a real partner in raising pupil attainment in a zone, we would expect to work with the LEA to raise funds from sponsors."

Nord Anglia is the largest provider of private education services in this country. It owns 16 independent schools, owns and operates international schools across Europe, and provides inspection services for OFSTED and careers guidance services. Shirley Wright says: "We can provide an effective strategy for school improvement which can be customised to meet needs."

The French company Bull Information Systems, a leading partner in the northern zone, will be contributing in kind by giving business knowledge, consultancy and some of the technology. It also expects to get paid work out of the zone. Philip Ruston, client manager in the Leeds office, says:

"Barnsley is one of our major customers. The action zone will mean a closer involvement in the future information technology work of the borough, including the national grid for learning. We can also use it as a marketing tool when dealing with other authorities."

The zone partners have yet to settle the share of the work they expect to be commissioned to provide. These discussions may be more difficult than those putting together the bid. They also have to give attention to such contentious issues as teachers' pay and conditions, changing the school term and how far to modify the national curriculum. The devil will be in the detail.

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