In a housing estate in Newcastle upon Tyne children as young as five were walking a dangerous half mile to school on their own - or simply not turning up at all. But then came a special bus, and attendance and results rocketed. Nadene Ghouri ona success story thatis now under threat
Me mam's got the baby to look after and she can't be bothered to walk all the way. Me daddy is too sleepy - he won't get up. He just lies in bed moaning about money. So I used to have to walk meself to school. But now I get the bus. It means you can learn better if you get the bus."
Seven-year-old Clare attends Mary Trevelyan primary school on Newcastle's Cruddas Park estate, one of the most deprived housing estates in the north of England. Two years ago, when she was only in reception class, Clare frequently found herself walking the half mile to school alone. She had a choice of two routes: along one of Newcastle's busiest roads, but she didn't like that because the cars scared her, or via a shorter route which took her straight through Cruddas's high rises. A council policy of only housing families in the lower rise blocks on the edge of the estate means that the high rises are mostly populated by single men. "Junkies, drug dealers and bad people, me Mam told me," says Clare.
By the time she finally got to school, if she made it at all, Clare was frightened, stressed and always "scared the teacher would tell me off for being late". Quite simply, says Mary Trevelyan's head, Mavis Grant, she was "in no fit state to learn".
There are many more children like Clare. Sixty-one per cent of the school's pupils come from households with no breadwinner. Eighty-six per cent are on free school meals. Adult male unemployment averages 46 per cent, compared with 19 per cent for the rest of Newcastle. The area has the lowest home owner-occupied rate in the city, and the highest incidence of long-term, stress-related illnesses, such as depression, in England. The estate also suffers from a disproportionate amount of crime, mostly drugs-related, much of which goes unreported for fear of reprisals. In fact, the climate of fear and retribution was so widespread that some parents said they were too afraid to bring, or were actually prevented from bringing, their children to school.
Two years ago erratic attendance and consistent lateness were the school's biggest problems, disrupting classes and distracting children. Attainment was low, ambition even lower.
Chris Pandrich of Save the Children, who has researched and worked with local families, says: "It wasn't that the parents didn't believe in education or didn't want to bring their children to school. Of course they did. But against this backdrop of poverty it's hardly surprising that many families experience considerable difficulty in ensuring a consistent pattern of school attendance for their kids. The pressure on some of these families, particularly the women, is immense."
As one mother said: "I'm on my own and when the baby's sick, it's easier to keep all the kids off school than dress the baby, put her in the pram and push her to school and back."
It was clear that unless the school could find a way to relieve some of the pressure on families, attainment would stay low. Chris Pandrich says:
"Denying the kids an education seemed unacceptable, and often the simplest solutions are staring you in the face. It was - bring them in by bus!" On a working visit to New York, Mavis Grant had been inspired by the famous yellow school buses and the effect they had on disadvantaged areas. As in Cruddas, distances from home to school were short but dangerous. The buses toured estates, stopping at marked points to pick up unaccompanied children.
In 1995 Save the Children agreed to fund a bus for Cruddas as part of a two-year pilot scheme. Not quite the New York yellow bus, but a blue and white coach emblazoned with the words "Rush - executive air-conditioned travel".
The results have been spectacular. For some children attendance rates have improved by over 30 per cent. Overall school daily attendance has risen from 84.3 per cent to 91.4 per cent. In the school foyer children proudly display certificates given for 100 per cent attendance every term.
However, the results are most impressive in terms of attainment. In 1995, just under 25 per cent of pupils at key stage 1 reached average or above in all three core subjects of English, maths and science. By 1997, that had risen to 75 per cent.
At key stage 2 just under 30 per cent of pupils reached average in 1995. Today that figure is closer to 70 per cent. Mavis Grant puts the improvement down to the success of the bus. She says: "We had some very stressed children who constantly missed one or two days a week. They lost interest and fell behind. I know it all seems very simplistic, the idea that simple transport can improve academic performance, but often the effects of social exclusion can be tackled in such simple ways. Children want to learn, their parents want them to learn - and now that we can get them to school safely and on time, they can."
On a wet morning in Cruddas it takes half an hour for the coach to weave its way through the estate. By 8.55am there are 50 children aboard chattering excitedly. At the last stop Clare and her friends beg the driver to wait a minute. Jason isn't here yet, and, as Clare explains, rolling her eyes in seven-year-old indignation: "We always have to wait for Jason. He's always late because his Mam says she's sick of getting him ready in the morning."
Then Jason appears running up the hill. He jumps aboard and flops down with a sigh of relief. "I woke up late because the baby was crying all night. I forgot me breakfast and I thought I'd missed the bus. Me Mam said I couldn't go to school if I did, and it's literacy this morning. I didn't want to miss that, because I love books, me."
Sadly, Jason and Clare may not have their safe route to school for much longer. The Save the Children grant has finished and the education authority has turned down repeated requests for the pound;8,000 a year "Ticket to learn" costs. Parents can't afford to pay for the service, but are determined not to let it go. Through their own fund-raising efforts, they have secured pound;3,000, which means the bus can run until July.
"What's pound;8,000 in terms of ensuring 50 children get to school every day of the year?" asks Chris Pandrich.
All children's names have been changed