When poverty makes 'average' look impossible

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Self-evaluation puts leadership in our school as "good". The LEA rates it as "very good". Ofsted will rate it as "satisfactory" at best. Why the difference?

The Government takes the simplistic view that the quality of leadership correlates directly with pupil achievement. Good leadership leads to good pupil results; poor results must be the fault of poor leadership.

Many people have no idea of the depths of the deprivation in some areas of the country. Most teachers will never work in a school such as mine, and they certainly will not send their children to one. Ditto politicians. We deal daily with the results of poverty - not so much of money, but something more insidious: aspiration, opportunity, experience. Everyday outings are foreign to most of our children. Many have never been to a bookshop, cinema, museum, art gallery, theatre, concert or even McDonald's, until we take them.

Yet the Government continues to shake a big stick at me, my staff and my governors, and threatens to beat us with it for not producing "average" results. We are accused of whingeing and making poverty an excuse for educational failure.

So what do you do to mitigate the effects of poverty? Do you get to the root causes: a cycle of unemployment across generations, breakdown in family units, single parents, teenage pregnancies, violence, drug abuse? Of course not. What you do is to put the onus on schools and create loads of initiatives which put more strain on the leaders in deprived areas.

Don't get me wrong; these initiatives are laudable and will start to chip away at some of the edges of disadvantage.We have Sure Start and the Children's Fund (free fruit every day). We are to get a behaviour support team, and a behaviour improvement project, both based at our secondary school, a sports and arts centre, Easter clubs for SATs, and a project to improve children's speaking and listening skills. Wonderful, but more work.

Last September, HMI asked me how we chose which initiatives to take on. I explained that we didn't have a choice: if SATs results are down, you can't afford to be arrogant. You need to prove that you have tried everything and then, if results still don't improve, you expect a beating with a slightly smaller stick. More importantly, these initiatives require better leadership. They need co-ordinating, organising, they take time, effort, paperwork and - if we're not vigilant - threaten to take our eye off the ball of providing education rather than social work.

The extra burdens we carry are heavy: vandalism, intruders, thefts of computers, a murder, a hanging, an indecent assault, heroin found in the playground. All this in the past two months. On top of all that we have had to cope with a pupil turnover of 22.9 per cent in seven months. Yet we manage to teach, and organise school clubs, trips, and residential visits; we give our children the best deal possible while daily bearing the brunt of disaffection, parents' drug abuse, broken families and children's and adults' frustrations and anger in an area with few opportunities and not much hope.

Might these, possibly, be reasons why we are not performing to "average" standards? We believe we do an important job with a sense of purpose, with cheerfulness and good humour. Judged by our yardsticks, we are successful.

We are not asking for bouquets, just that we not be held accountable for the ills of society and the effects of disadvantage and deprivation.

Cathy Byrne is head of a primary school in Hull

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