A grip on inclusion
If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes it would be hard to believe just how bad Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan used to be and how different it is today. Once there were holes in the red brick Victorian walls and you could see the sky though the roof.
That was on my last visit 15 years ago, when staff at this school claimed they had been abandoned by their local education authority (Clwyd). Then came a controversial application for grant-maintained status, which split the community in Abergele as bitterly as the Berlin wall. Eventually, in 1993, grant-maintained status was granted and the 672-pupil school, suddenly awash with money, more than doubled in size.
Four years ago, after the 1996 local government reorganisation had shifted the school into Conwy and Labour changed grant-maintained to foundation school status, Nayland Southorn arrived from Cheshire as headteacher. In spite of being a man who welcomes a challenge, he had to be persuaded to stick with his application for the Abergele job.
The buildings may no longer be squalid - the school even boasts a swimming pool - but running the place is still testing. There are 1,600 pupils - 376 with special needs - who come from 28 schools across a 60-square mile catchment area that includes small hill villages, one of the most deprived estates in Wales, and seaside suburbs where the population has moved, wholesale, from inner-city Manchester.
"When I came here the GCSE A-C pass results had crept up from 17 to 27 per cent and were still the poorest in Conwy," says Mr Southorn. "It was a big challenge. Part of the deal was that I would be getting a lot of support from the LEA for the school. I was asked to make a difference, not only to the results but to the relationship between the governors and the LEA, who were deeply suspicious of each other."
Today, GCSE passes are up to 43 per cent. "When we get to 50 we'll be all right, but it's a long way to go," he says philosophically. "We have just had three students go to Oxbridge and our key stage 3 results are the best in the county."
These have been gradual improvements at a time when the governors have felt a greater confidence with the authority and the LEA have been welcomed through the door. Even attendance at parents' evenings has risen from 20 to 80 per cent, which speaks volumes.
One of the school's winning attributes is its social inclusion policy.
Special needs at Ysgol Emrys include registered blindness, autism and school phobia, yet there is no separate unit. Instead, special needs and social inclusion co-ordinator Carole Ratcliffe tailors programmes for individuals.
"Every child that comes here is a member of 7M or 8G or whatever - they don't have an S chalked on their back," she says. "I work in grey all the time rather than black and white."
This demands an imaginative and creative management system. It ranges from extra classroom support to teaching the driving theory test to Year 10 and 11 pupils with learning difficulties.
"You get the reading and writing in with something that's purposeful, because they all want to drive," she says. "In addition, they have a bit of one-upmanship."
It's a similar philosophy for pupils who struggle to cope with the demands of the full curriculum, says key stage 4co-ordinator David Humphreys. His mission is to engage the disengaged.
He does this by working with training agencies and youth workers to offer a range of alternatives to traditional subjects. Hairdressing and beauty training in two professional salons in the town replace classroom lessons for two days a week. And a local martial arts company comes in to teach the boys about discipline and respect for themselves and their teachers. "They learn self-defence, how to curb anger and calm down dangerous situations,"
Demand for the alternative curriculum is now greater than the number of places so pupils are interviewed to assess their suitability. "We want them to get the feeling that this is something special, not that they are rubbish at school," says Mr Humphreys.