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Survival struggle at league depths

For the council with the worst GCSE results these are nerve-racking times. Julie Henry reports

IT'S been a cold, long winter for Joan Taylor, the school's chief of the city that has been on the bottom of the GCSE league table for four years running.

Hull's local paper has been running a campaign to get her sacked and she recalls feeling devastated when she was told how many pupils had got five A* to C grades last August.

Speaking to the press for the first time since the publication of the league tables in October, Ms Taylor said: "It took a while for all the headteachers to phone through on that day. When I was told it was 24.4 per cent, I couldn't believe it. The LEA's own worst-case scenario was 27 per cent and our target was 29. On a personal level, it was devastating."

Ms Taylor took the helm at Hull when the council was created in 1996, after a career in local authority education departments, described criticism of her as "unfair". She has since been backed by senior councillors, heads and teaching unions.

Gerald Hailwood, secretary of the local branch of theAssociation of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said members had every faith in her. Pat Ward, head of Andrew Marvell school, said the authority's team was the most hands-on she had worked with.

A 1999 inspectors' report praised the council's support to schools in the city, which is one of the most deprived in England.

A third of children are living in households where no one works, teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in western Europe and few residents are high earners. Only 43 houses in the city are in the top council tax band - one of them belongs to local MP and deputy prime minister John Prescott.

There is no tradition of educational attainment in the former fishing community where children left school at 14 to work on the trawlers. Parental-condoned absence is commonplace.

Ms Taylor said: "I don't want people to think this is an excuse. These are statements of fact. Children in Hull can and will achieve but they are not doing it at the moment."

Although GCSE results are poor, at other levels improvement is rapid. Despite significant numbes of children turning up at nursery with language problems, key stage 1 test results are just behind national averages. Key stage 2 results are improving much faster than the national rate.

Key stage 3 results also show promise, particularly in English, helped by a Saturday morning booster scheme for high-flyers.

But all this effort will take years to impact on GCSEs. And it is now that matters. Education chairman Gordon Wilson has already vowed to fall on his sword if Hull stays at the bottom of the tables this year.

The council is now co-operating with the local paper's campaign to encourage educational achievement. Andrew Swallow, assistant education director, said: "We have had the Department for Education and Employment and HMI around this table and asked them if there is anything else we can do - other than sit the exams for them - and they have said 'you can't do any more'."

Ms Taylor said: "We are nagging the heads, heads are nagging the teachers and teachers are nagging the kids and parents. It is no good sitting here saying 'oh, woe is me'. We have to keep going."

Facts of life in Hull * In this year's national tests for 11-year-olds, 65 per cent of pupils reached the expected level in English, 67 per cent in maths and 81 per cent in science. England averages were 74, 71 and 84 per cent.

* Three secondaries are to close in September to be replaced by two new schools.

* Fresh Start school Kingswood high failed an HMI inspection and went into special measures at the end of last year.

* Famous people from the city include anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, aviator Amy Johnson, actors Tom Courteney and Maureen Lipman and band The Beautiful South.

* When Kingston Communications, the city council-owned telecommunications company, was floated on the Stock Exchange last year it netted more than pound;250 million for the council coffers.

* The Deep, Hull's pound;40m lottery-funded, ocean discovery centre will open at the end of this year.

* The city has one of the highest pupil mobility rates in the country.

* Over the next seven years pound;25.5m urban regeneration cash will flood into the city.

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