A programme designed to raise pupil aspirations and teacher expectations is proving itself successful in many areas. Nicholas Pyke reports
When Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said he would rather beg on the streets than send his children to a local, inner-London comprehensive, he was forced to make a rapid apology. He had not, he said, intended that an individual school should be named in the press, as it inevitably was.
But Mr Letwin, who has a reputation for refreshing honesty, did not apologise for the sentiment.
In fact what he said sums up feelings shared by thousands of inner-city residents, particularly in the nation's capital, and he knows it.
The scale of parental concern is not hard to gauge. Across the country, the proportion of disappointed parents whose child fails to get a place in their first choice school is around one in ten. In London, the rejection factor is nearly three times greater than that, according to research conducted by Sheffield Hallam university.
Inner urban education has a bad reputation, and people are voting with their cheque books, opting for the safety of the private sector. It is to no one's surprise that independent schools are embarking on what they hope is an unprecedented eighth year of consecutive growth. The point has not been missed in Whitehall.
"You should not have to go private to be stretched, developed or nurtured," said the schools minister, David Miliband, in a recent speech. "We need to cater for the special needs of every single pupil, whether they have special needs because they are struggling with learning or because they have special gifts and talents that mean they are bored in too many lessons and fail to make the most of themselves."
Excellence in Cities is designed to help change the sort of perception openly articulated by Oliver Letwin. Introduced in 1999, the scheme has poured millions of pounds directly into tackling misbehaviour and raising aspirations. It is now helping 1,300 maintained secondary schools in 58 LEAs, mostly in deprived urban areas, and 750 primaries, which started getting involved in the scheme in 1991.
Excellence in Cities has now been made more flexible, with the introduction of "excellence clusters" - namely, groups of schools working together in small pockets of disadvantage, often in more rural areas.
The problems facing these schools are huge. Staff, including headteachers, are harder to attract and retain. The proportion of transient children and refugees is substantially higher. Behaviour is worse, and occasionally violent. And poverty levels are extremely high.
As a result, these schools struggle on almost all academic indices, from the number of good GCSEs to the number of university degrees. As Ofsted noted in its 1993 report*, "deprivation and disadvantage were closely associated with low standards, low aspirations and social isolation".
Little, overall, has changed. This week's joint report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission** found that weak schools often serve the poorest, most vulnerable and disaffected pupils, and blamed the free market in admissions for making the problem worse.
The report argues: "Parental preference exacerbates a number of problems.
An unpopular and low attaining school with spare places may lose more pupils... so entering a spiral of decline."
Yet there is some evidence that Excellence in Cities is starting to make a difference. It is one of a range of measures aimed directly at urban areas, including education action zones, city academies and Sure Start, but it appears to be one of the most successful.
Last year's performance tables, for example, showed that pupils in the schools that have spent two and three years in EiC increased their performance at twice the rate of pupils in non-EiC schools. In a number of towns, including Hartlepool, Leicester, Gateshead and Cleveland, the improvement has been particularly marked.
Pupils at key stage 3 seem to have benefited too, with particular progress made in maths and science. The picture is mixed, of course. There was less progress in the most recent schools to enter the scheme, those in phase 3, included for only the past year.
Rapid improvements in some places mask stasis or decline in others and, despite welcome rises, results at key stage 3 and GCSE remain way behind the national averages.
Inner urban schools routinely find around 30 per cent of their pupils achieving five good GCSE grades compared with a national average of 54 per cent last year.
There is concern about English, too, a subject where performance is notoriously related to social context. At key stage 3, the EiC schools have made only the same 2 percentage point progress as those outside the programme (although this is arguably a more impressive rise in terms of their starting place).
The improvements from EiC are not consistent, said another recent Ofsted report***. But the programme came out well all the same: inspectors found that schools were motivated and positive; that they have used the money well; and that EiC has improved co-operation between schools and local authorities. They had particular praise for the learning mentors who work with disadvantaged students.
Excellence in Cities, with its specific aims - and lack of any need to "bid" for cash - has been notably more successful than education action zones, which, according to the same report, have had a limited initial effect.
It blamed ambitious, unfocused programmes of activities - although it also said the management of the zones had subsequently improved.
Overall, said Ofsted, the scheme has had a positive impact, a view shared even by analysts normally sceptical of government wheezes, particularly those felt to come from Downing Street rather than the DfES.
"Excellence in Cities seems to have been a very good thing," says Martin Rogers, from the school and local authroity research group TEN. "It certainly makes a change from the other initiatives coming out of Downing Street." High praise indeed, if a little sour.
*Access and Achievement in Urban Education** Schools, Places, Planning: the influenceof school place planning on school standards and social inclusion ***Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones: management and impact.