Dundee has a hill to climb

25th February 2005 at 00:00
In a remarkable admission, Dundee has conceded it faces an uphill struggle to boost pupil attainment in the face of endemic deprivation.

A lengthy and brutally frank report by Anne Wilson, the city's director of education, concedes that it "has one of the highest rates of pupils on free school meals, very high absence rates, the highest exclusion rates, the lowest staying-on rates and the lowest percentage entering employment" - despite considerable efforts by schools and schemes much admired nationally such as Read (raising early achievement in Dundee).

Among its "comparator authorities" of Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian - which most closely resemble it - Dundee is the most deprived in terms of the number of primary pupils entitled to free meals and the third most deprived on the free meal index for secondary schools. The result is that, while there has been some improvement in attainment, results remain depressed.

In a comment which propelled her into the headlines, Mrs Wilson suggested:

"At its root, Dundee's low attainment has something to say about the aspirations and self-image of the people of Dundee."

The education committee on Monday appeared to agree with her and decided to set up a "best value review group" whose job will be to come up with measures that will "significantly improve" attainment in schools.

Councillors will begin a series of visits to schools - and to other authorities - to see what works.

As an indication of the council's serious intent, the review group will be chaired by Alex Stephen, the chief executive.

Mrs Wilson suggested in her report that the time had perhaps come "to go for a single high profile focus on attainment" rather than a range of small strategies.

She added: "It is undoubtedly the fact that schools have in recent years had their attention distracted from attainment by the demands of implementing the McCrone agreement and by the myriad of other worthy initiatives ranging from attendance to health.

"There is clearly a need to recapture the focus on pupil attainment for all of our managers and for all of our teachers."

The education department has embarked on a strategy designed to inculcate a "cool to succeed" attitude. Known as "Learning Together in Dundee", it pulls together a string of other initiatives but puts the emphasis on developing enterprise, teamwork and problem-solving.

Some 500 teachers have already come together to discuss the initiative and share good practice, and all teachers are to be given training in its use.

The authority wants each school to draw up a strategy for implementing Learning Together over the next three years.

Mrs Wilson frankly admits in her report: "It is unlikely that any changes will have a significant impact on attainment in the short term, within one to two years."

She also acknowledged that the Learning Together programme "may initially be more time-consuming for staff". But she believes this will ease as the pace of learning is stepped up.

The council also wants to talk to the Executive's curriculum review board "as a matter of urgency", offering to try out new approaches that will simplify the curriculum and leave more time for teachers to make learning effective.

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