Darby's winner

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Coal and iron once made the area wealthy. Now local schools are looking to their heritage and a new economic boom

Telford, the town named after the Man of Iron, is known as Plastics Valley these days. Instead of coal, rivets and girders, it is churning out packaging and moulded polymer by the lorryload. Something approaching 100 specialised processing works have gathered around the town and the M54 motorway is the country's first "polymer cluster".

Students leaving school in the new borough of Telford amp; Wrekin have no problem finding work. The arrival of the motorway, relieving the clogged A5 to Wales, has banished its reputation for isolation. Telford is now one of the fastest growing towns in Europe. Research by the Henley Centre suggests it is one of the 25 most economically dynamic areas in the land.

Not that there is any danger of escaping its industrial past. And this too is big business. The Ironbridge Gorge, cradle of the industrial revolution, has been designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco. It is one of only 24 in the UK, attracting 2,500,000 visitors a year, many of them children and students of course.

It is the region's other, more rural side that tends to be forgotten, the Shropshire of the Wrekin, rising dramatically above the gorge, and AE Housman, the 19th century poet who wrote about "the land of lost content".

Two thirds of the borough's 112 square miles are agricultural. The well-to-do market town of Newport, on the northern edge, boasts highly successful schools. Among the borough's 160,000 population, there are plenty who can afford to shop in Shrewsbury or patronise Ludlow's many famous restaurants.

Understandably, however, it is deprivation that attracted the immediate attention of the unitary authority when it was carved out of Shropshire in 1998. Telford itself was created in the 1960s, drawing together a collection of defunct pit villages and small market towns, and inheriting more than its fair share of poverty. It is one of the 100 poorest places in the country. So the borough has to work hard at both economic regeneration and educational attainment and has seen results rise steadily.

But some fundamental attitudes will be harder to shift. It is not unknown, still, for fathers to remove their sons from school on Friday, once miners'

pay day, to take them around the shops. And while the town has very little unemployment, the type of work available remains a serious problem. For all the inward investment and hi-tech trickery, the factory jobs are resolutely low grade: one fifth are unskilled, more than five times the national average, and the lack of interest in further and higher education remains a big challenge for the borough.

Most places claim to be unique, and Telford amp; Wrekin has a particularly good case with the market town of Wellington, one of the oldest in the Domesday Book, sitting in the shadow of one of Britain's newest. Its sharp divisions of wealth and poverty mean that it is also typical of Britain as a whole. As the Ofsted report on the authority, published in 2001, makes clear, Telford amp; Wrekin has already made a systematic and successful start on tackling the ingrained problems familiar to every education authority.

So successful, in fact, that it is drawing a steady stream of visitors from Whitehall. There is every chance that solutions invented in the birthplace of the industrial revolution will find their way into county halls and classrooms across the country.

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