Later this year, two research reports will be published that will attempt to throw light on the reasons for white working-class under-achievement on sink estates around the country. Talk to Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, and he will tell you that the phenomenon is one of his biggest headaches. "Some of these estates have an air of desperation about them," he says. "We have to give them a future, give them hope."
In the Tile Cross area, he and his team are attempting a daring solution that involves merging two secondary schools almost by stealth. There have been very few public meetings about it. The idea of merging Sir Wilfred Martineau and Byng Kenrick Central was formulated only last Easter, staff were recruited after the resignation deadline and already a new school is taking shape.
The Centre for Accelerated Learning opened in September in a smart, refitted building with new furniture, bright classrooms, two computer suites, three electronic whiteboards and corridors with carpets that go half-way up the walls to deaden the noise of pupils moving about. Last year, the same building was a shabby, run-down site, the lower school building of Sir Wilf's, a school in special measures. Round the corner, the main building is separated by a fence from Byng Kenrick.
Since 1945, the two schools have shared a pendulum-like relationship: as the fortune of one has risen, the other has declined. On an estate where race is not a big issue, the two schools have been the focus for adolescent gang warfare. Unemployment is high and nearly half the children qualify for free school meals.
Locally, the centre's building is known as the CAL. What makes it different is that it caters only for Year 7s. Twenty-one staff, with both primary and secondary experience to break down the different patterns of teaching in the two sectors, have been seconded on one-year contracts to see if they can make the experiment work. Every one of them has been given a laptop as befits a project which has been labelled the School Fit For the 21st Century.
Separate accommodation for year groups is not revolutionary, but the teaching methods herald a new approach. On the staffroom walls, the message is clear: "Build self-esteem." "Use a variety of learning strategies." "Create the ideal state for learning." "Use knowledge about the brain."
"We're trying to break the mould," says Gareth Owen, deputy head of Sir Wilf's, and the man in charge of CAL. He is excited by what has been achieved in a term and a half. "The key thing is we are trying to raise our pupils' self-esteem and get them involved in setting their own goals. We want to act as a positive stepping stone into secondary education. The first green shoots are coming through. The kids are saying: 'I can do this.' " Like many others in Birmingham, Owen and his team base their teaching on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligence. Basically, Gardner believes that children have different learning styles, from the more formal linguistic and mathematical, which most schools favour and which help the traditionally academic child do well, to musical and intra-personal. Gardner says teachers should try to recognise their pupils' different learning styles and employ different teaching techniques.
At CAL, they have extended these using the principles of Alastair Smith, author of Effective Thinking in The Classroom. He believes in getting the environment right for learning: water for pupils to drink, music, pleasant open surroundings, all designed to make pupils feel comfortable and confident. Hence the refurbishment.
Teachers must not have a hiddn agenda: they remind pupils what they have already done on a topic, prepare them for what they are going to do and tell them what they are expected to achieve. And teachers use visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (physical) activities to get the content of a lesson across. Children who achieve personal bests - in writing, sport or whatever, have their photograph published in the school bulletin. The accent is on the positive.
Nothing is fixed in stone yet for the next stage of the merger of Sir Wilf's and Byng Kenrick: the likelihood is that next school year, the new Year 7s will come to the CAL building, the Year 8s will move to another refurbished, discrete block, and the two sixth forms will merge, leaving only Years 9 to 11 in their separate schools to be joined perhaps the following year. It is all subject to negotiations with the unions and governors.
One idea that would be revolutionary, if introduced, is basing heads of department on the areas of Gardner's intelligences. The obvious ones - linguistics for English and logics for maths - would not rock the boat, but the idea of a head of artistic and intrapersonal intelligence having equal status would question existing values.
Birmingham fact file
* Population: 1,014,400
* Political composition: Labour, 78; Conservatives, 20; Liberal Democrats, 16; Justice For Kashmir, 3 * Birmingham suffered high jobless rates during the 1970s and 80s. Between 1971 and 1993, 195,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. Unemployment is now 8.4% (33,476 people) compared with a national average of 3.5%. New jobs are expected in IT, professional services, banking and finance. Six of the top ten software companies have moved to the region.
* 22% of Birmingham residents were non-white in the 1991 census.
* 35% of children under the age of 10 were of non-white ethnic origin in 1991.
* Birmingham employs 9,343 teachers and a further 13,094 staff who look after 175,000 pupils up to the age of 18.
The city runs
* 323 primary schools
* 27 nursery schools (including two voluntary)
* 23 community nurseries
* 77 secondary schools
* 28 special schools (six residential and 15 for secondary-age pupils
* Free school meals: 34.4%
* Statemented children: 1.3%
* Teacher-pupil ratio: 1:21
* Average class size: 27
* Racial background: African-Caribbean 6.7%; Bangladeshi 3.5%; Indian 5.9%; Pakistani 16.8%; white 59.4%; other 7.7%
* Home languages: Bengali 3.5%; Creole 0.5%; English 71%; Gujerati 1.2%; Gurmukhi (Punjabi) 6.1%; Hindi 0.2%; Urdu (Punjabi) 7.2%; Urdu 6.9%; other 3.3%
* Free school meals: 35%
* Statemented children: 1.6%
* Teacher-pupil ratio: 1:16
* Average class size: 23
* Racial background: African-Caribbean 7.5%; Bangladeshi 3.4%; Indian 7.8%; Pakistani 15.7 %; white 57.1%; other 6.8%
* Home languages: Bengali 4.4%; Creole 0.3%; English 70.3%; Gujerati 1.7%; Gurmukhi (Punjabi) 9.6%; Hindi 0.3%; Urdu (Punjabi) 4.6%; Urdu 10.2%; other 3.6% General
* Birmingham last year jumped from 112th to 105th place, based on the numbers gaining five A to C GCSE passes. In 1988, 18% of Birmingham pupils gained five passes; last year, it was 41% compared with the national average of 49%. At key stage 2, Birmingham was 25th in the improvement rankings, having risen 46.4 percentage points over the previous four years in the three subject categories: English, maths and science.
* The Birmingham Grid for Learning connects 8,000 computers in the city's schools and acts as their portal on to the Internet. www.bgfl.org * Those interested in teaching in Birmingham, call 0121 303 22895327. email: schoolsrecruitment@ birmingham.gov.uk