Steel in the soul

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Corby rose and fell with the changing fortunes of heavy industry - but its resilient community may be poised for recovery thanks to its education action zone, writes Harvey McGavin

A hundred and forty years ago, railway workers laying tracks towards the Northamptonshire village of Corby found that the fields surrounding it were rich with ironstone. The discovery of these rust-coloured rocks was to change the place - for better and for worse.

Corby became a boomtown. Its population rocketed from 1,500 to 50,000 as labourers came to work in the huge blast furnaces. But Corby's fall was just as sudden. When the steelworks closed in 1980, 11,000 people lost their jobs and the name became a byword for recession and industrial dereliction.

"All towns can identify their own particular problems," says Duncan Mills, of the Corby education action zone. "But Corby has gone through some very large economic changes."

Almost everyone has been touched by the town's decline. Mr Mills's father was a steelworker but he escaped a dead-end job by going to university and becoming a teacher. Now, after working in almost every sector of the education system, he is the chief mover in a revival of the town's educational fortunes.

Driving on roads skirting the town's council estates, he points out the flattened concrete where Beanfield school once stood. Beanfield and another secondary, Queen Elizabeth's - both failing schools - were closed a few years ago. But the local education authority had another reason for wanting to close them - the drift of people away from the town during the 1980s left several hundred surplus places.

Corby community college - the Fresh Start school which was created in their place - soon found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. Two years ago, it went on a four-day week because of teacher shortages and pupils were asked to work at home on their day off.

Headteacher at the college Pam Hutchison was not in post at the time, but she defends her predecessor's decision. "It was a brave thing to do - the reality at the time was that there weren't enough teachers," she says.

But the bad publicity didn't stop there. In 2001, the number of pupils at the college achieving five GCSEs at A*-C fell to 6 per cent. "All of this negative publicity hurt the children," says Ms Hutchison. "That's a thing I find difficult to forgive."

The town endured a spate of anti-social behaviour, culminating in an arson attack which destroyed a supermarket, leading in turn to proposals to impose a curfew on the under-15s - but these plans were shelved by town councillors in October.

Delays in building work on the college, which stands on the former site of Queen Elizabeth's, didn't help, and meant that pupils were taught in temporary accommodation for a year. Ms Hutchison says the uncertainty surrounding the new school affected pupils' achievement, and that it was a measure of the children's self-esteem that when they moved into the new buildings, "they really didn't believe they were worth it".

The college's response has been to set up a range of clubs, before during and after school. Many are run by learning support assistants, some of whom are on a pilot scheme run by the EAZ in conjunction with University College Northampton, to train as teachers.

The clubs, designed to keep pupils occupied during unstructured parts of the school day, cater for athletic pursuits such as basketball, football and trampolining, as well as drama and practical interests such as knitting and gardening. The music club has been one of the college's most successful schemes, and the school band recently returned from its first ever tour - of the town's primary schools.

The modern facilities - including interactive whiteboards, well-resourced music rooms and science labs, and a hydrotherapy pool for children with disabilities - have impressed prospective parents.

"At a parents' evening, I overheard someone saying, 'You'd better get your child into this school - it's going to be the best in Corby. If you don't hurry up there will be no room'. That was one of the most pleasing things for me. Previously, if a child had been offered a place here they were upset. Now we are oversubscribed."

The academic profile is also improving, says Ms Hutchison, and she has high hopes that a forthcoming six-month project with Radio Northampton - which will set up a studio in the school - will boost the school's image, and pupils' self-esteem.

Corby has some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, adult illiteracy, premature death and coronary heart disease in the country. And for the time being, Corby community college is still propping up the league tables. Like it or not, that is the criteria by which a lot of people are likely to measure success.

"When I came here, one of my first targets was that every child would leave here with a qualification of some kind. We are aiming to reach a 15 per cent GCSE pass rate, but you have to remember that a year of that cohort's education was completely disrupted by being on another site."

Ms Hutchison is a Glaswegian. Unlike the second and third generation Scots whose families moved south when the Scottish firm Stewarts and Lloyds set up their steel plant in the 1930s, she is a new arrival. The legacy of this migration is still evident in the town. Corby has its own annual Highland Games, Rangers and Celtic supporters clubs, and the Daily Record and oatcakes can easily be found in local shops. And the corridors of the college ring with broad Scots accents, even though many of Ms Hutchison's pupils were born in the East Midlands. She says her background is "coincidence" - "but I don't think it's unhelpful,' she adds. "I'm fairly used to some of the upfront ways in which parents might approach me."

Enlisting the help and support of parents is central to her plans for the school. A homework club to help mums and dads to study with their kids is proving popular, and Ms Hutchison makes a point of having individual discussions with children and their families.

"I talk about 'when you go into the sixth form', 'when you go to university'. Often, anyone going on to post-16 education will the first person in their family to do so."

On the industrial estates where the steelworks once stood, warehouses offer unskilled jobs in food production and distribution. There are skilled jobs in town, but school-leavers are often lured by the promise of an instant wage into badly-paid jobs with poor prospects.

Overcoming poverty of ambition - just 20 pupils stay on into the sixth form - is perhaps Ms Hutchison's most urgent task.

"Be the best," urges the school motto. And among the motivational statements that decorate the corridors, there is a saying from Epicurus that sums up her predicament: "The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it."

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