Last year the West Midlands council was bottom of the primary league tables. Helen Ward reports on a pound;3 million plan to raise its game.
ON Hilary Bills's first day as head of Holyhead primary, in Wednesbury, she was greeted at the door by a pupil who told her: "You don't want to work here, the inspectors say we're all thick."
She went on to take the Sandwell school out of special measures. She saw that same pupil leave with three level 4s but the incident demonstrated the effect on morale of being labelled a failure.
Now the whole authority is under pressure. Sandwell came bottom of the primary league tables in 2002 with 63 per cent of its 11-year-olds gaining level 4 in English and 64 per cent in maths. The national figures were 75 per cent in English and 73 per cent in maths.
Almost all the borough is classed as deprived and there are no affluent areas, according to the authority's 2002 Audit Commission and Office for Standards in Education report.
Despite this, the report found that, compared with other metropolitan authorities, Sandwell had one of the lowest assessments of how much government money it needed in 200102.
But 19 of the authority's 100 primary schools are achieving scores above the national average and the council is now looking at ways of spreading that expertise.
Penny Penn-Howard, head of school improvement in Sandwell, said: "We have some excellent schools and we wanted to reward them and build on the idea of beacon schools."
The Sandwell solution is to set up 12 partnerships of three schools each.
These so-called triads will have one "leading" school working with two weaker schools. Each triad will have pound;50,000 a year to spend for two years. A contract between the authority and the leading school will link the money to results.
Ms Penn-Howard said: "The money could be used for staffing, training or ICT. By sharing good practice and releasing teachers to work together, we reduce workload and give teachers time to revitalise."
The leading schools plan is part of a pound;3m improvement programme in the borough.
Liz Walker, Sandwell branch secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "A major difficulty is getting headteachers and quality staff. There's the demotivating factor of poor press coverage of Sandwell which leads teachers to move.
"People see the authority is bottom of the league table and don't want that pressure."
The triads' targets will be based on children's previous attainment.
Although Ofsted has said Sandwell is improving faster than similar authorities, its schools need to improve faster than almost anywhere else in the country to meet government targets of 84 per cent in English and maths.
THE SANDWELL SOLUTION
* Contracts with up to 12 "leading" schools to drive up standards by supporting underperforming "partner" schools in the neighbourhood.
* Support for family learning schemes in designated schools.
* Extended schools in the six towns which make up Sandwell.
* A programme for ethnic- minority pupils at risk of underachievement.
* Training for governors where governance has been identified as weak by the Office for Standards in Education or the LEA.
* Sandwell Learn (Local Enquiry and Research Network) to encourage all schools to take part in action research projects over four years.
* Behaviour co-ordinators in schools, behaviour audits and pupil attitude surveys.