'Phenomenal' head feeds stomachs and minds

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Assembly praise for woman who strives to break poverty cycle in Wales's third most deprived area

A "phenomenal" headteacher has been praised for going the extra mile to tackle pupil poverty. Roz Harrison, head of Rhosymedre Community Primary near Wrexham, has been held up as an example of how to break links between deprivation and low achievement.

Her fans say she not only motivates pupils, but looks after their basic human needs, ensuring they are fed and watered before lessons begin. She also encourages teachers not to talk down to parents, some of whom have bad memories of school.

In the Senedd last week, Eleanor Burnham, the member for North Wales, said Mrs Harrison went well beyond her remit. Members were debating recommendations from a committee; among these was that every teacher receive training in child poverty and that there should be a pilot scheme offering free schools meals to every child.

Rhosymedre is in the heart of the impoverished Plas Madoc estate - listed in 2000 as the third most deprived area in Wales. More than half the 167 pupils have free meals and almost half have special educational needs. A majority of parents claim benefits and more than half do not own a car.

During eight years as head, Mrs Harrison has seen attendance and attainment improve. "It's about making sure the children have a big enough incentive to come every day, and that parents are aware of how important every minute they spend at school is," she said.

The school runs weekly family learning mornings for pupils and parents study together at, say, cooking or Welsh. Mrs Harrison has invested heavily in staff, employing specialists and encouraging her six teachers to have extra training.

Cash has been found to pay for a teacher to give extra literacy and numeracy support, and the school has a counsellor to help pupils with mental health issues.

POOR SHOW, SAYS POVERTY COMMITTEE

The Assembly's children and young people committee made 27 recommendations in its report on child poverty last November. But members are concerned that not enough action is being taken.

Helen Mary Jones, chair of the committee, said: "We remain concerned about the speed and vigour of tackling child poverty."

It is estimated that around 170,000 children in Wales live in poverty. Official statistics reveal a firm link between poverty and underachievement. The Assembly government has pledged to halve the number of children living in poverty by 2010.

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