It sounds like mission impossible: nurturing the worst-performing pupils in Britain's worst-performing school. But Ruth Emm says that's what makes her job worthwhile. Nigel Williamson went to meet her
Ruth Emm admits she has the least-envied job in teaching. For the past seven years she has been special education needs co-ordinator at Ramsgate School, Kent, dubbed by tabloids and broadsheets as "the worst school in Britain". Last November's exam league tables ranked the school rock-bottom - for the third year in a row. Just one pupil gained five GCSEs at grade C or above.
The task of educating the most chronically under-achieving pupils in the nation's most under-performing school is an onerous burden and the workload is huge - more than 70 per cent of Ramsgate's pupils have special educational needs.
"Of course it is stressful," says Emm. "Sometimes you feel you can't take another minute. You go home and think: 'I don't need this.' But these children have so many problems. You have to be very hands-on and totally involved in their background. This isn't just an education factory and you can't survive like that here."
But the limited success she achieves carries its own rewards. "Last year we had 15 pupils in Year 7 who, when they arrived, could hardly read or write. We moved them on the equivalent of three or four years by the time they went up to Year 8," she says.
Although starting from such a low base, these are not the sort of achievements that show up in the league tables, and Emm makes no attempt to conceal her frustration with the dictates of a curriculum that is often at odds with the needs of slow learners. "I wish we could do more of the activities in which our children can succeed - drama, music, learning from educational trips. But we've been able to do that less and less in recent years as the pressure has all been on standards."
Funding for extra-curricular activity is another problem. In 1994 she took a group to a drama festival in Spain. But the school has been unable to repeat the experience because, three years later, many of the group are still paying off the cost. A recent planned day out at Chessington World of Adventure was cancelled because few of the pupils could raise the Pounds 22 charge. "The economic decline of this area continues and our pupils simply can't afford these trips. But when we can take them they are so appreciative. They aren't like middle-class children who have been everywhere. Most of them have never been to Canterbury, just 20 miles away."
Reasons for the school's poor examination performance lie partly in the socially deprived housing estates it serves and partly in the selective system maintained by Kent County Council. The school is far from the inner-city areas usually associated with high levels of deprivation, crime and abuse, but almost 60 per cent of the school's 440 pupils come from homes in which nobody has regular employment. No matter how the council tinkers with the school's image (two years ago, marketing consultants changed the name from Conyngham to Ramsgate), the harsh reality of social exclusion remains.
Against this bleak picture the school operates in an area where selection at age 11 has always ruled. The three local grammar schools, a nearby church school and a brace of single-sex schools between them cream off the more able pupils. Ramsgate is left with an intake characterised by poor motivation and low morale. "Parental choice has filtered out the more able children, and we are reaping the reward of the the council's policies," says headteacher Brian Lippitt.
Back in the classroom, Emm is trying to get eight 13-year-olds to write a letter saying what they want for Christmas. It is an obvious ploy to engage their interest, but even such an attractive assignment fails to inspire. Each child needs almost constant attention. "It's like that circus trick of spinning the plates," says Emm. "You're forever running up and down just to keep them all going."
Over a hurried cup of coffee, she discusses with her deputy, Valerie Hunt, plans for a play reading with a terrifyingly weak class of Year 7 pupils. The project is ambitious as few of the children can read much. But a mixture of coaxing and prompting, patience and encouragement bears fruit, and by the end of the lesson the children's collective pride is almost tangible. Year 10s are studying Macbeth. "We couldn't touch the text," Emm explains. "So I told them the story and showed them a film. Then we made some props and acted it out. The problem is that the GCSE course is more and more prescriptive."
Emm is in the classroom for 27 out of 40 school hours a week. In the remaining available time she must deal with all the paperwork, including setting written targets for those with special needs, and liaise with other agencies such as Individual Pupil Services and educational psychologists.
On this raw winter morning she devotes another 20 minutes to finding clothing for an 11-year-old boy who has come to school in only his shirt, claiming his mother shrunk his jumper in the wash. Later she conducts a case conference on a boy the school has taken from an east-London borough, now in a local foster home after his mother was sent to prison for drugs offences.
"One pupil we are reintegrating has been out of mainstream schooling since the infants. We've just taken an 11-year-old from Nottinghamshire who is the oldest of eight children and is severely traumatised. We've taken children from a special school for pupils with behavioural difficulties which closed last term and we have young offenders who can't get in anywhere else."
Emm says that taking on the problems everyone else tries to avoid is something of a mission. "If we exclude these children, no one else will pick them up. We don't fail our pupils. We provide the weak and the vulnerable with a safe learning environment in which they are given the opportunity to grow."
This has been partly recognised by an encouraging report last April from the Office for Standards in Education, which praised the school's leadership. "The league tables are only measuring the school at the margins," says Lippitt, who believes the worst-school-in-Britain tag is as misleading as it is damaging. "We are told we are in a marketplace. I've been trying to recruit from the junior schools but every parent brings up Ramsgate's reputation. A label like ours makes it difficult to improve."
The impact on morale in the staffroom and classroom is devastating. "Every year when the league tables come out we have to batten down the hatches. People are made to feel dreadful failures and it is very hard to deal with," Emm says.
"This isn't the worst school in the country although we have some of the most deprived pupils. A system that constantly devalues them instead of encouraging them is nothing short of shameful."