Blackpool, bitter? You must be joking. Forget the town's lost bid for a supercasino, schools now have control of their own fortunes, says Elaine Williams
Blackpool's disappointment the day it lost the supercasino bid is memorable. On that leaden morning at the end of January, Sky TV had provided the giant roulette wheel for the great and good to gather around in triumph on the Golden Mile.
But the mood turned ashen at the news; hopes for a regenerated town crumbling as fast as the gilded gaming halls along this notorious seafront promenade.
Like their civic and political leaders, Year 10 at Highfield Humanities College gathered to hear the announcement. Huddled around the computer of Chris Wardle, their science teacher, they were voluble in their displeasure when it came over the internet. Cries of "It's not fair!" greeted the Casino Advisory Panel's bombshell that the bid had been won by Manchester.
But while the town's elders remain wintry in their discontent, Year 10 has moved on. By the next day, Chris says, the great supercasino disaster was hardly mentioned.
Certainly Blackpool's schools have a real spring in their step. In particular the local authority and its eight secondaries are pulling together to create opportunities for the town's young people, based not on gambling, but on exciting teaching and learning.
The town was criticised by Government advisers for staking everything on gaming and having no plan B for the future. But its schools have been working on plan B for some time. They have been busy collapsing timetables, rolling subjects together for cross-curricular learning, getting children out of the classroom, out of school, out of Blackpool to see the world beyond; building the self-esteem, critical thinking and team-working skills required for 21st-century living.
Granted, the authority has its work cut out. A walk down the Golden Mile reveals a surreal stretch of decaying kiss-me-quick shops, slot-machine emporiums and lap-dance palaces. It is full of young mothers pushing buggies by day and drunken stag and hen parties roaming the area by night.
Prostitution, drug and alcohol-linked violent crime is rife. Blackpool has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the country; three times the national rate of suicide; the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the North West; the second worst life expectancy in England; twice the average proportion of rented accommodation - much of it multi-occupancy and its population transient. Only 40 per cent of adults have any formal qualification. Bed and breakfasts are for sale everywhere. Visitor numbers have fallen by seven million in the past 15 years.
Despite this, there are teachers who say it is a great place to be. They talk of warmth, a shared humour and the notable friendliness of pupils, even the challenging ones. They welcome innovation, and are willing to pitch in to a plethora of initiatives.
In our risk-averse culture, Blackpool's unitary authority is doing everything possible to support schools in making educational and residential visits. It has pledged that every pupil will have the opportunity to play a musical instrument or receive vocal training. It also says 22 primaries and all secondary schools now have orchestral ensembles that rehearse weekly.
Days after the supercasino disappointment, 33 schools performed cabaret, orchestral arrangements and dance in Blackpool's Grand Theatre in a Schools Alive concert that ran for three hours over four nights to packed houses.
In 2004, the National Music Council judged Blackpool's music service 149th out of 150 local authorities. This year it has been placed in the top seven.
GCSE results have long been below the national average in Blackpool, but the gap is narrowing. In 2006, 48 per cent of pupils achieved five A* to C grades - a 7 per cent rise on the previous year, their best results in terms of value added, and a marked improvement on the 36 per cent of 2002.
Only between 17 and 20 per cent of pupils go on to higher education in Blackpool - poor by any standard - but last year the city was granted one of the highest increases in funded FE places by the Learning and Skills Council due to a rise in students staying on post-16.
At key stage 3, where disaffection has been a real problem, Blackpool schools are in the vanguard of national innovation, with plans for cross-themed lessons, more flexible, topic-based days, and increased use of group work and peer assessment. In some schools, children are moving on to secondary school in June rather than the following September, to ease the transition.
Blackpool "university" has been launched by the local authority, accrediting learning outside the school day. A learner entitlement has been established, including the right to learn to swim - a crucial life skill for a seaside town. Up to pound;75 million is to be spent on schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme, and several high schools already have new state-of-the-art performing arts facilities. And the Lancashire Youth Games are being hosted by Blackpool this summer.
All these initiatives have led to a feeling of optimism. There is hope that the breadth of educational development taking place will forge a confidence and creativity in young people - a sense of purpose, responsibility as well as audacity, that will lift the town.
A new generation educated to seek wider horizons will probably look beyond gambling as the answer to Blackpool's problems and work instead to regenerate the city by creating a more diverse culture
LIGHTING UP LIVES IN BLACKPOOL
* Nigel Duckworth, 42, has taught history at Montgomery High School for 21 years and is an advanced skills teacher.
He says: "I'm from Oldham and used to go on family holidays to Blackpool. I came to Montgomery from teacher training and stayed. It is a unique town with huge potential and on the whole the pupils are decent, happy young people and there is a sense of common purpose among staff.
"I'm a real believer in e-learning - emotional learning, that is - and see my role as history teacher as being to help children be better mannered, more tolerant - for example, by learning from the past.
"Every year I take Year 10 to the Somme battlefields and to Berlin. It's only by getting out that the lessons of history hit home.
"We're also taking pupils to Belfast as it's on our doorstep and treating them to a tour of the Falls Road as well as the Shankill. I'm using this as a basis for teaching history in a conceptual fashion rather than strictly chronologically, so students can learn to link things, eg, the causes of the Troubles compared with the roots of 21st century terrorism, looking at the pattern of Irish names in Blackpool, studying the concept of diaspora.
Pupils are more engaged this way; the learning more life-changing."
* Chris Wardle (left), 29, is an advanced skills teacher in science at Highfield Humanities College. He has lived in Blackpool all his life and was educated at Montgomery High School and taught by Nigel Duckworth.
"I have a strong affiliation with the town and am raising my own family here now. It is such a friendly place to be, everybody seems willing to help," he says.
"Pupils haven't really given the supercasino another thought. There are so many other good things going on. A few years ago our GCSE results were 37 per cent, now they're 50 per cent. The teachers are fantastic. That's why I have stayed. We're in the planning stages of remodelling the curriculum to build students' confidence.
"We also take them out more in lessons. A couple of years ago, in PSHE, I took Year 11 students out on an open-top bus to some 'outdoor' classrooms - the magistrates' court, police station, night shelter - where people talked to them about the effects of drugs and alcohol. We also toured the sites where drug addicts and prostitutes hang out, and saw the after-effects of binge-drinking. We repeated the exercise with Year 10."
* Deborah Hanlon-Catlow (above), 38, advanced skills teacher, assistant head and learning and innovations director, teaches performing arts at Bispham High School:
"I've been here for 14 years and it's just the most fantastic place to be,"
she says. "The pupils are high energy and this setback for the town has not dented their ambition.
"At key stage 3 we are creating three-hour blocks mixing music, dance and drama and intend to use this to lead cross-curricular work in the school.
Two huge dance studios were built in 2002 and the students are keen. I run two boys' dance clubs - juniors and seniors - and there is a huge amount of imagination and creativity among them.
"I came to Bispham to set up a dance club and stayed on. Last year I got my National Professional Qualification for Headship. Blackpool has been great for my professional development.
"Schools and colleges got together a few years ago to set up a Festival of Dance, with 500 students performing at the Winter Gardens Opera House.
Bispham is in talks with the Royal Ballet to set up a partnership to bring on talented students in school and create a centre of excellence for dance in the region. These are huge achievements."