Is that better?

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Tony Blair came to power four years ago promising to fight social and economic division. But with fresh elections looming, has the party that proclaimed 'things can only get better' made any real difference to the lives of Britain's poorest families? Wendy Wallace asks the head of a Salford primary school to give Labour an end-of-term report

Under a pale, December-morning moon, the Ordsall estate in Salford looks reasonable enough. The streets of toytown architecture, each ending in a cul de sac to deter crime, have given people front and back gardens in place of the dustbins and bollards that sat at the front of the now-demolished flats. More than pound;50 million of government money has gone into pulling down the old blocks and replacing them with human-scale housing. "Some families are buying garden equipment and swings, having barbecues like they see on Neighbours," says Helen Buchanan, headteacher of St Clement's Church of England primary, "This is a quality of life change."

But although such improvements are helping to turn around the atmosphere of neglect that has dogged some of Britain's worst estates for decades, social inclusion, judged on a range of criteria covering income, employment, housing, educational attainment, health and participation in civic and community organisations, takes more than that. The estate's refurbishment has come without the hoped-for upturn in employment. St Clement's intake is one of Britain's poorest - four years after Labour came to power, almost 90 per cent of the 200 pupils are still on free school meals. Almost one child in two has special needs. Are they growing up socially included?

Helen Buchanan, in leopard print sweater, shiny high heels and three shades of eye shadow, has a gold crucifix prominent around her neck. ("I'm not a bang-on-the-drum kind of Christian. I tell the children you can sum up Christianity as being kind. My moral philosophy is 'be kind'. Would you like a brew?") She came to St Clement's 10 years ago, when there was no uniform, school council, jazz dance clubs or Labour government. Instead it had 20 junior pupils involved in joyriding and an authoritarian style of discipline that fostered bullying. Much has changed since then. But the odds are still stacked against the children here.

When you get up close to it, away from political rhetoric, exclusion, says 46-year-old Helen Buchanan, takes varied and unexpected forms. There are headline facts - such as an infant mortality rate in Ordsall comparable to that in Cairo. Then there are more subtle issues - such as the difficulty of getting music or dance teachers or minicabs to come to the school because of the lingering notoriety of its M5 post code. There's the uselessness of asking for material contributions from home. Helen Buchanan once asked children to bring in kitchen roll, needed as part of costumes. None appeared. One girl explained: "Miss. My mum says kitchen roll is a luxury we can't afford."

Hemmed in by three major roads, the estate is an urban island. But only one in four or five families here has a car, so any out-of-school events must include transport. "Other schools just tell parents to drop the children off. We have to hire a minibus, which costs us pound;80. This is the reality of social inclusion," says Helen Buchanan.

The school tries to compensate deprivation in every area of children's lives. It has a serious anti-bullying policy, teaches children to eat their free school dinners with a knife and fork, to manage their rage and frustration. Children at St Clement's are offered a drink of water every hour-and-a-half because, says the head: "A lot of them don't have breakfast or drinks in the mornings, so they come in dehydrated. We'll do anything to promote cognitive development, to give these children the best chance of absorbing information and retaining it."

St Clement's won a Healthy School award from the local health authority last November, for work on issues ranging from drugs to safety. But it has a lot of reparation to do - half of the children entering nursery have speech and language difficulties, often caused by continuous ear infections in infancy. Asthma and attention deficit disorder are rife, as is a particular form of western malnutrition. Last time Ofsted called, in 1999, the lead inspector told the head that in 60 inspections he'd never seen children so small for their age. "Every year, I have a child who loses a parent," says Helen Buchanan. "Every year, I have a child who is critically ill, or goes through major surgery."

Nationally, recent statistics show no reduction in health inequalities under this Government. Ministers have yet to admit how profoundly the national curriculum discriminates against marginalised children. Few of the children here ever write at home, are given books, are read to or learn much from their parents and families that tallies with the Government's prescription of what they should know.

Most of the key stage 2 SATs science paper can be passed on the strength of good vocabulary and general knowledge, says St Clement's Year 6 teacher Lee Ashton. Without these, to get 76 per cent up to level 4, as the school did last summer, is a huge achievement. "The test is not socially inclusive," says the head.

Offering inclusion to deprived children has to be a great deal more than drilling them in a core curriculum. Vicar Robert Bracegirdle has been in the parish 18 years and is chair of governors. He pops in to apologise for missing a staff lunch - "I've got a funeral. And he was murdered" - but he's on for carols at the local old people's centre. Thirty-six children set off, led by Helen Buchanan, carrying her guitar. Seven-year-old James trots beside her ("I can't manage without you. Do you want to carry the books or the bells?"), temporarily out of his detention. They pass the "Jhon (sic) Farrell supergrass die" graffiti and a derelict vicarage.

In the day centre, the old folk switch off their mobiles. "How are you Nellie?" the vicar enquires.

"I shouldn't sit at the front. I always cry," she says.

Some are gaunt and distracted but most are permed and smiling. The children are proud and fidgety behind their shared carol sheets, knees together, small feet in scuffed shoes. Afterwards the children get a cracker and a biscuit from a tattooed care assistant, and extravagant thanks from the matron. One little girl has a dance with Nellie. "We three kings of Orient are," Craig sings from his wheelchair on the way back to school, his paper hat over his eyes. His learning support assistant struggles to heft the chair up and down pavements in the rain.

Part headteacher, part missionary, Helen Buchanan empathises with this community not from her imagination so much as from her own experience. As an undiagnosed dyslexic, she got through her O-levels studying with audio tapes at home. She spent six years as a single parent after her first marriage ended, supplementing her teacher's wages with evening work. Her elder child, now 21 and at university, almost died of a brain illness 10 years ago. (He was left with sight problems and mild cerebral palsy; it took her three years to get him statemented.) Her younger one, a 13-year-old girl, developed a phobia about school and suffered panic attacks after being bullied at one of Manchester's top secondaries.

Ms Buchanan lives in what she calls a parallel universe - Worsley - nine miles away on a fast-moving motorway. And part of how she measures the inclusion or otherwise of children at St Clement's is by comparing their experience with those of her and friends' children in Worsley. Her daughter was at St Clement's for five years and used to invite schoolfriends over for birthday parties. But she never got an invitation back. "They don't have birthday parties. The past couple of years, children have told me their parents can't afford Christmas cards."

Helen Buchanan went without a pay rise for five years. "The school couldn't afford it. And it's difficult to raise the issue with governors on income support." She decided from the outset to involve the local media to raise the school's then non-existent profile. Local press coverage led to the BBC filming in the school as part of an ongoing documentary series on poverty, and to involvement with Newsnight. It's a high-risk strategy, which has paid off, giving Helen Buchanan the opportunity to ask Home Secretary Jack Straw in person for a security fence, witnessed by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. (She got it, along with a new alarm and entryphone system last May.) Parents told the head they welcomed the involvement with television because it gave them the opportunity to tell the truth.

St Clement's aims to raise the horizons of parents as well as children. "The parents are the vision-holders not the children, so you've got to inspire them," says Helen Buchanan. The school offers a Towards GCSE English course, and the same in maths and ICT, all in school hours. "They can't go to night school. Who'd mind the kids?" says the head. Fifteen parents are doing an RSA certificate in internet access, alongside the prize bingo and coffee mornings.

About 38 per cent of pupils at St Clement's come from single-parent families. Funding that has reached children here includes education action zone cash for extra classroom assistants, an ICT technician and the breakfast club; and Excellence in Cities money for a key stage 2 learning mentor. The literacy and numeracy strategies have also brought targeted money, contributing to the total of pound;100,000 extra brought in by Helen Buchanan last year.

She says the past 12 months have seen a revolution in the way the school receives money. Previously, most of the school's funding was tied to prescribed outcomes determined by central government, but since the last Budget, the Government has been "throwing money at the school". She says:

"Last May we received pound;9,000, which is paying for double glazing throughout the school, and this year we've been promised pound;20,000 - with no strings attached. It's as if the politicians have suddenly twigged that they can trust us. It's given me a new lease of life."

But Windsor high, the local secondary school - reputedly doing well by its pupils by all indicators other than the percentage of those gaining A-Cs at GCSE - faces closure. And the St Clement's roll has dropped by 70 children in recent years, as those with the means to get out of Ordsall do so. "Many of the parents are becoming empowered to make life changes for themselves and their children. Some have got jobs and moved away, and others have gone in for council exchanges, something they probably wouldn't have done a few years ago," says Helen Buchanan. But many of those moving in are young people without children, and as a result of the falling roll, the school has lost five teachers in the past two years, and one of its two on-site, 15-place pupil support units.

Ordsall seems a long way from Department for Education and Employment headquarters. Helen Buchanan recalls going to a DfEE conference on attendance, and asking the man from the department what heads should do if a child's family was not on the phone. "Ring them at work," he reportedly said, and looked puzzled when the audience began to laugh.

Anti-poverty policies can manifest here as blunt instruments. A major disappointment in this community is that working 16 hours a week makes families ineligible for free school meals. Some women tell the head they would rather be with their children, and forfeit the few pounds extra they could make. Others who have acquired basic qualifications are frustrated at the lack of opportunity to take things further. "There's no understanding of people at the lower tier," she says. "Parents can't afford to give up work to get the next set of qualifications, with no guaranteed job at the end of it. The Government has reformed welfare for the better, but it needs a reality check on where people go after the first move."

The personal cost to Helen Buchanan and teachers like her comes first and foremost in health terms. She collapsed with exhaustion two years ago, shortly after a night in which up to 30 youths armed with baseball bats and Stanley knives broke in, spending two hours smashing and slashing their way through the classrooms and departing with pound;20,000 worth of National Grid for Learning computers. Her GP has warned her that she is physically exhausted, and she has had several extended bouts of ill health. "I will burn out. The signs are all there." What is she doing about it? For the first time she looks evasive. "I've bought a clock. And I eat bananas."

She tries hard to protect the staff. They do a lot of stress management training. No one apart from her is allowed to run more than one club. She went to IKEA to get a glass-topped table and uplighters for the staffroom. "It's about the dignity of work, looking after people. The staff have the added stress of getting no support from parents. Only a handful have ever turned around and said 'You've made such a difference to my child.' But if they don't like something, you get immediate feedback."

Despite the material improvements (the security bars on the windows are coming down as the new windows go in) recruitment remains difficult. "I love working in Ordsall because I like the people," says Helen Buchanan. "There is a tremendous honesty that hits you right between the eyes. Many of the people may be poor, but they make sure they put money aside to pay the bills. The media can always find one or two dysfunctional families to concentrate on, but most of our parents are decent people. The difficulties I have are the same difficulties every head has - being overworked, not having a bursar. But a school like this is not for everybody."

Social inclusion is not about getting people into a corral. They have to want to be there. In this respect, Helen Buchanan sees a shift in attitudes on the Ordsall estate. "When I came here, parents didn't hear children read. They wrote off education. They were very anti-establishment," she says. "Now they want things for this generation. And many of my parents, who grew up in the depression of the early 80s, are desperate to know how to get a second chance themselves."

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2000 by Mohibur Rahman, Guy Palmer, Peter Kenway and Catherine Howarth is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A summary can be viewed at: findingssocialpolicyd20.htmReal Estates, a BBC2 documentary series following the lives of people in Salford's Ordsall and Langworthy estates, will be screened on four nights next month


Latest official statistics show no reduction under this Government in the number of children living below the breadline, despite Chancellor Gordon Brown's claims to have lifted a million children out of poverty. Four and a half million children still live in households with less than half the national average income, according to a recent Policy Institute survey; two million live in families where no adult is in paid work. However, the most recent figures end in March 1999, before the Working Families Tax Credit and national minimum wage came into effect.

Health indicators show little improvement. Although the number of accidental deaths has fallen, children whose parents are manual workers are twice as likely to die in accidents as those from non-manual classes. Babies born into poor families are more likely than they were in 1995 to have low birth weight.

The concentration of poor children within particular primary schools continues to increase, shows the data.

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