A uniform solution to identity

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
When Mo Laycock came to Firth Park school in north Sheffield as head two years ago, the school was a byword for low standards and things were looking bleak. "We had a poor image in the community and had gone on to the 'serious weaknesses' list," says Mrs Laycock. "I had a lot to do."

Happily, there has since been a marked improvement in school-community relations. Reintroducing uniforms helped to boost group identity and pinpoint pupils causing trouble in local shops.

Mrs Laycock then seized on opportunities for pupils to act outside the school. One group cleaned up a rubbish-strewn alleyway, while two 13-year-olds raised Pounds 320 in sponsorship to buy litter bins.

The 60-strong Youth Action Group extended its activities to tidy residents' gardens. Pupils even cooked and served a formal meal for 60 Sheffield dignitaries drawing on a number of skills. Even arranging the car parking involved the use of maths.

An unruly group of 12 Year 10 boys on the verge of permanent exclusion became far more controllable after regular visits to help out at a pensioners' lunch club. Some even kept up their visits in the school holidays.

History is on the community timetable, too: children are about to create a drama on Shiregreen, the local estate, interviewing elderly residents as research. Residents have already come in to the school to talk about World War II.

Now pupil numbers are up, and Mrs Laycock is looking forward to 1999, when the split-site school will come together in a Pounds 6.6 million refurbishment.

Heather Tomlinson, co-ordinator of the Sheffield Centre for School Improvement, is happy to endorse community links like those at Firth Park. They can be an integral part of a school's efforts to pull itself up by its bootstraps, she says. She will be reporting on efforts to raise standards in Sheffield schools at the congress.

"Schools in areas of disadvantage can't raise achievement on their own, " she says. "They have to set about raising expectations in the community - because if pupils don't have raised expectations outside the school, then the influence the school can have is limited."

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