Elaine Williams reports on a local authority's valiant bid to improve its league table ratings
Pip Anger was standing amid a sea of paper looking perplexed. "I came here thinking I was going to be told how I could help my four-year-old son through school and instead I'm being asked what schools should be doing.' Mr Anger was one of 40 parents who turned out in the autumn chill to spend an evening at Penistone grammar school to do their bit for the Barnsley Education Partnership.
The partnership, which began in June, represents a valiant once-and-for-all-attempt by the borough to wrest itself from the league table doldrums. Although it involves the wider community such as local colleges, business, training and enterprise councils, the police and the health authority, it is the parents who are being treated as key players. Indeed they are being asked to bare their educational souls.
Led by parent volunteers who have been trained at the local Northern College, they are being encouraged to talk about what they want from education and how to achieve it .
The Penistone meeting was the third in a series at Barnsley schools, all with a similar format. Parents were split into small groups, handed pens and large sheets of paper and asked to express their educational aspirations.
Parents at Penistone wanted "happy" children. "I would like to see my daughter leave school a happy and confident young woman", was one heartfelt response. They wanted a "balance between the curriculum and life skills" and "teachers who lead by example".
They asked for guidance and classes "to help their children through school". Others wanted more contact with school: "Parents need more feedback. I have a child in primary school and I haven't a clue what she is doing. A parent's evening once a year isn't enough", said one. "Setting, not streaming" was the verdict of one group after heated discussion.
Inevitably there were the hard-core demands for more nursery places; smaller class sizes and better resources.
Mr Anger surveyed all this soul-searching with some reservation. A manager for Premdor, a door manufacturer in Barnsley, he said: "People are asking for more resources and we know we're not going to get it. We do need to do something, though. Kids are coming into my firm and they just don't have the basic skills or the confidence to do the job."
The authority has decided that it is time to turn the tide on low achievement. While Barnsley re-mains near the bottom of the exam league tables (in 1996 it was 105th out of 119 authorities with 28.8 per cent GCSE A-Cs compared to a national average of 44.5 per cent) officials realise that industry will not invest in the area.
Task groups of "partners" have been set up to look at issues such as school self-evaluation and performance; the 14 to 19 curriculum; learning initiatives (including early years, literacy and numeracy); relations between the community and parents; and quality of teaching.
The findings from these groups, as well as the responses from parent meetings, will feed into an educational development plan to be published in March for implementation in September 1998. Each partner will be committed to achieving targets outlined in the plan.
Barnsley Council wrote to parents in the summer telling them about the partnership and asking for their comments on the borough's schools. It received 6,000 responses and 1,000 volunteered to be members of task groups.
Barnsley has suffered terribly as a result of pit closures. Between 1981 and 1991 the number of jobs in the area fell by 19 per cent. Nearly a quarter of children live in households where no adult is working.
In addition, in 1994 levels of crime were 13 per cent above the national average compared to 25 per cent below in 1979.
However, Stephen Houghton, leader of the council, believes the time has come to change a culture of low educational achievement and aspirations.
"We have been through a period of trauma, but people are beginning to look forward," he said. "When we wrote to parents we were told not to expect a response; we have touched something there and we are not going to lose it. We want to go beyond the Government's plans for homeschool partnership. But this is a community issue and the community has to lead itself out of the trough. "
No doubt the plan will also be used as a lever to increase the amount of money the borough can spend on education. Barnsley is sixth from the bottom of the 36 metropolitan authorities in terms of funding.
"We have low ethnicity and our unemployment level is not taken into account, " said Mr Houghton. "We have been pressing the Government to improve our lot since May. But we have to make sure we are spending money on the right things. That is what this partnership is about."