After the coal rush
Many of today's Barnsley schoolchildren have never seen a lump of coal. But in the early 1980s I remember a neighbour of my parents in the South Yorkshire town proudly taking his sons and my daughters off to an open day at a newly modernised "super pit". A young father, earning good money as a miner, his enthusiasm and confidence in the future for his family was brimming over. At that time, 15,000 men worked in 16 pits within the borough of Barnsley.
Then, on March 5 1984, the miners went on strike in response to the Thatcher government's closure programme. The strike, which lasted 11 months, was defeated and the industry subsequently destroyed. The last pits closed in the early 1990s, a fate difficult to comprehend when I recall the roaring fires of my childhood, fed by coal from the nearby pit, and the shiny black slab that took pride of place at my school's harvest festival.
Now, like the big fellow at the end of the bar who could have been a contender, Barnsley seems a place past its prime. Where once there was a Theatre Royal, three cinemas, thriving Co-op shops, and a busy market with 400 stalls that drew coachloads of people from miles around, now there's just a sad northern town centre, with a dismal 1970s shopping mall and a few remaining stalls. Only the magnificent town hall, built defiantly in the depressed 1930s, speaks of a more vibrant past.
Educationally, too, the town is on its uppers. Of the working-age population, 41 per cent have no educational qualifications, compared with 29 per cent nationally. The proportion of pupils gaining five top-grade GCSEs across the borough is 35.4 per cent, against the national average of 51.6 per cent. The 14 comprehensives battle tirelessly in search of improvement and to keep up their attendance figures, but the return for enormous effort can look meagre. Priory secondary, for example, an 11-16 sports college on the edge of town with 900 pupils, is improving, but the raw figures tell of an uphill task. Attendance - blitzed relentlessly - has risen from 87 per cent to 90 per cent in three years. In the same period, GCSE results have improved significantly across the ability range, but the proportion gaining five top GCSEs is still just 38 per cent.
"Thank God for added value," says headteacher Irene Moore. "On that measure Priory is among the top 300 schools in the country."
If a town such as Barnsley is to show the kind of progress that reflects the effort being made in schools and other services, it needs a fresh approach, a new way of thinking. Which is why, two years ago, Barnsley council came up with Rethinking Barnsley (soon to evolve, as plans took shape, into Remaking Barnsley.) This involved recruiting the award-winning architect Will Alsop, whose ambitious vision of a new Barnsley involved a 10-storey wall of apartments circling the centre, and a laser-generated halo of light visible for miles.
The phrase "Tuscan hill town" was used, and picked up gleefully by the metropolitan press. ("Barnsley? Eeh, it's the new Tuscany!" chortled the Daily Express.) Talk to council leader Steve Houghton, though, and you realise that whether or not the towers of San Gimignano are reborn in Barnsley isn't the main point. What is important, he says, is everyone's determination to think the unthinkable, to do something radical, "because if you just do more of the same, you end up with more of what you had before".
It's not just pie - or haloes - in the sky. Barnsley is one of several communities deemed "renaissance towns" by Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency that has already paid pound;32 million to acquire the 1970s shopping mall - in order to knock it down. This is the first tangible act in a 20 to 30- year programme designed to attract private investment and transform the town centre into a lively, thriving place with modern apartments and good shops - a focus for lifting spirits and standards.
"The period of mourning is over - that feeling of being held prisoner by the past. Whatever your perceptions of Barnsley, throw 'em out of the door.
This place is changing," says Mr Houghton.
One of those recent perceptions has been an association of the town with hard drugs. Heroin arrived in Barnsley in 1994, and by 1999 the town's drug action team estimated there were between 3,000 and 5,000 users in the area and that around 80 per cent of crime was being carried out by addicts.
Television programmes and newspaper articles focused on Barnsley's "heroin hell", depicting a once-proud community on the verge of drug-induced destruction.
Now, it looks as if the problem might be easing. Drug educators in schools say that alcohol and cannabis are the drugs of choice for teenagers. Andy Vincent, of the drug action team, believes young people have seen the devastation heroin can bring and are making "more sophisticated choices".
And, like Steve Houghton, he says the environment is changing for the better. Unemployment is down, and run-down estates have been rebuilt.
There's a more positive feeling in those communities, says Mr Vincent.
Steve Houghton knows the real key to remaking Barnsley lies in raising the aspirations of young people and their families. At the root of poor achievement lies a culture, dating back to mining days, of poor motivation, lack of interest in exams and college, and reluctance to look beyond whichever tight little community you were born into.
Denise Hayward, an assistant head at Priory school, was a pupil there when it was a secondary modern. "In those days," she says, "if you were a girl you'd do your five years, then you'd leave and do a couple of years in a sewing factory, meet a nice chap, get married and live happily ever after.
When I said I was going to be a teacher, people said, 'Oh, you'll meet somebody nice instead, you'll see'. But I got on because I was recognised and pushed by people here."
Attitudes are starting to change, thanks to people such as Ms Hayward, but Mr Houghton is impatient to pick up the pace, and for education his hopes are pinned on Edna Sutton, the borough's education director, just a few months in post, and a former head and senior adviser in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Yorkshire. Like Mr Houghton, she believes that simply upping the dose of the old medicine will not bring the patient round. "If we want the vision to come to life we have to think differently," she says. So, to go with Remaking Barnsley, she's leading Remaking Learning, a heady mix of initiatives designed to raise community interest in education, and increase commitment to it.
Last December, Barnsley council put out a consultation document that proposes remodelling its schools into learning zones. Each one will cater for 2,000 children in an advanced learning centre - based on an existing but rebuilt secondary school - and about 10 primary learning centres, also on the site of new or refurbished primary schools.
Each zone will closely integrate existing family, child and community services. In line with this, the advanced learning centres will be open for 48 weeks a year, seven days a week, from 7am to 10.30pm, and, according to the council, set term times and holidays will be replaced by "flexible arrangements" for staff and learners.
The scheme is expected to cost around pound;200 million, and take four years to implement; the first learning centre is scheduled to open in 2008, and the last by 2012.
In January, the vision came closer with the relaunch of Priory secondary school - a specialist sports college - as a "full-service school" offering a wide range of adult education and family services. A specialist schools programme will mean that all specialisms are covered across the town (including themes tailored to Barnsley's needs such as health, and digital media) and that barriers are blurred between primaries and secondaries - and between education and other community services. All of this will be driven by a revised approach to learning and teaching styles, fully exploiting advances in information technology.
So what might a Barnsley school look like in, say, 2010? I tried a picture on Ms Sutton - of an open school, at 7pm in mid-August, sports teams on the field, children learning in the computer labs, links to pupils online at home, mothers working with children, senior citizens talking to sixth-formers, the community police officer holding a drop-in session, teachers, other adults and youngsters chatting in a coffee bar.
"All of that," she says, but she clearly believes I haven't quite got it, that I'm just describing a relaxed, conventional community school. "You're making it much too cosy," she says. "It's got to have more energy than that, a buzz, more sense of ambition, a genuine commitment to drive up achievement."
It's a heady and seductive mix, still in the early stages, and you wonder if anyone has put up a hand to ask about realities such as money and employment contracts.
That, apparently, is still to come. Irene Moore accepts that eventually there'll be hard talking. For now, though, people are surfing a new and exciting wave. Nothing drives a revolution harder than the knowledge that what you already have is not working.
"Edna Sutton has had a very positive response from heads," says Ms Moore.
"We've had some difficult times in Barnsley, and everybody's ready for something to happen. She's saying that together we can make a big difference. That's inspirational, and people welcome it."
Radical it may be, but look at it carefully and you see that the Barnsley project is bringing together a range of changes that are already afoot elsewhere. Full-service schools, for example, have been piloted as "extended schools" in 25 authorities. The idea of taking a co-ordinated whole-authority approach to specialist schools, to provide choice across the authority, is happening elsewhere, too - in Sheffield, for example - and Barnsley won't be the only authority to make full and creative use of the possibilities offered by the Excellence in Cities programme.
When it comes to funding the new buildings, much is riding on the town's application to the Government's Schools for the Future capital building programme, which could bring in up to pound;200 million. There are surplus school places, too, with the prospect of savings from closures.
What adds legitimacy to the project, though, is the Every Child Matters Green Paper (the bill was due to get its first reading yesterday, March 4), the thrust of which lines up with the Barnsley vision of lifelong learning, raised aspirations and an integrated approach to children's and family services. The Green Paper envisages, for example, "a network of full-service extended schools, with at least one in each LEA in England by 2006".
"The principle - the thinking - of the Green Paper is absolutely common ground with us," says Ms Sutton. "How we interpret it locally is the challenge."
See next week's feature on extended schools
Barnsley Metropolitan Borough has a population of 228,000. That includes 87,000 people in the Barnsley urban area. The rest are scattered among villages and small towns.
Unemployment, at 6.5 per cent, has halved since its post-mining peak, but many jobs offered are part-time, and half of over-50s are out of work. The average income, pound;17,500, compares with a national average of pound;23,600. A major source of funding for Yorkshire Forward's plans is European Union Objective One, which targets funds in areas of deprivation; other areas in the UK receiving help include Merseyside, West Wales and Cornwall.
South Yorkshire receives pound;700 million. Topped up with British government money, the South Yorkshire redevelopment programme totals nearly pound;1.8 billion.