Exclusion? No thank you

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Behind the hi-tech new industry, you will still find real poverty. Phil Revell reports on a council praised for its work fighting against disadvantage

Telford may be a popular new town, but there are pockets of deprivation in the area as severe as those in any inner city. Official figures for the borough as a whole wouldn't raise any eyebrows: Telford is the 96th most deprived of 354 English local authorities. But low pay is a problem for over a quarter of the population and nearly 40 per cent of the area's children live in poverty. Seven of the authority's 34 wards have figures for post-16 qualifications that put them in the bottom 10 per cent nationally.

One of those wards is Woodside, a massive estate with more than its share of problem families and families with problems. Yet the estate also has Woodside infants, an Ofsted-commended "gold" school. Inspectors wrote about the "excellent quality of education" and the "outstanding leadership" of the head. Children here perform out of their socks, consistently beating national averages.

"Our statistics compared with schools nationally are very high," says Chris Grain, the headteacher. "It's about expectations. My staff, all 25 of them, have the highest expectations."

The school has a simple ethos: to celebrate pupils' achievements and to accentuate the positive.

"We try not to be pejorative," says Ms Grain. "We try not to use terms like 'naughty'. Children don't know what that means. It's just a global term for 'I'm in it again'.

"We have a problem with absence, but even there we don't say 'Where were you?' we say 'Oh, we missed you."

Telford amp; Wrekin was praised by Ofsted for its work fighting disadvantage and exclusion. In fact after what the inspectors describe as a "vigorous" campaign in the first two years of its existence, the authority managed to reduce permanent exclusions by 40 per cent in secondary schools.

It established a strong behaviour support service, which managed to persuade schools to take more responsibility for difficult pupils. It is proud, too, of its work with children from ethnic minority groups, who achieve better than average GCSE results, whether the comparison is local or national.

The authority has made full use of central initiatives such as Sure Start, a scheme to help cut the rate of childhood poverty by ensuring that the most needy families have ready access to education, health and social services.

Help has also come in the shape of the town's education action zone.

Attendance was a big problem, for example, at the Phoenix School, a secondary that serves a mix of old estates and new housing in the centre of the district. The zone has funded a special unit at the school for students at risk of exclusion and paid for an education welfare officer, Maxine Eccleston.

The school serves Dawley, a mining community that pre-dated the new town and one of the most deprived areas in the district. "Traditionally this was the school they came to," says Ms Eccleston. "There are more disaffected ex-pupils out there than current pupils in the school."

Ms Eccleston has adopted an extremely forthright approach, cutting out a lot of what she describes as social work practice. In fact she thinks some EWOs, confronted with intractable social problems, have drifted into a policy of collusion with parents. She is personally quite prepared to bang on doors if necessary.

"When I first came here it wasn't just a few youngsters skipping lessons, it was right across the school," she said. "My approach is brief family therapy: 'Where are you, where do you want to be and how can we get there quickly?' It's been a success. Attendance has improved 1 per cent a year over the last five years."

In this year's funding settlement, the Government cut Standards Fund support for projects like this, but Telford and the Wrekin intends to pick up the bill to allow the inclusion work to continue.

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