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United in move to score learning goals

David Bell, Newcastle's chief education officer, is hoping to revitalise the city's schools in the same way that Kevin Keegan has turned the Tyneside football team from perennial under-achievers into potential champions.

Last week's conference on education in the city ended on an optimistic note, with Professor Michael Barber, a Labour party adviser, predicting that Newcastle's schools could soon be outperforming United.

Whether or not the Labour-controlled authority, one of the 26 to agree to test out the party's policies, will emulate the triumphs of Tony Blair's favourite football club remains to be seen. However, David Bell reckons there is already a great team spirit among teachers and a commitment to succeed.

Many of the city's schools are languishing in the lower reaches of the league tables. And although the council doesn't have United chairman Sir John Hall's millions to spend, after years of cuts next year's education budget is unchanged.

"We had a fairly troubled few months last year [when teachers passed a vote of no confidence in the then chief education officer] and when I took over I realised I had to focus on building up confidence and raising standards. "

Projects are already underway to tackle truancy, improve special needs services and raise pupils' performance, particularly in primary schools. The introduction of the Suffolk reading test is seen as a first step towards the latter, the police and bus drivers have been enlisted to help detect truants and special schools are being reviewed with the aim of integrating more of their pupils into mainstream. A mentoring scheme to allow experienced teachers to help out in struggling schools is also planned.

David Bell admits that raising aspirations and expectations is a long task. Soon after taking the job, he came across a document from 1923 written by one of his predecessors and expressing the same concerns about basic literacy and numeracy, teacher training, and teaching children with learning difficulties. "It just goes to show there are no easy solutions."

But he is banking on the strong sense of regional identity in the city to translate into a collective responsibility for the education of its people. "The LEA is all of us."

A year's sabbatical spent studying inner-city education in America taught him some important lessons. "It's no good experimenting for the sake of it, you have to find appropriate solutions. And you have to highlight examples of people whose lives have been changed."

Darren Murphy, chair of the city's education committee, believes a back-to-basics policy will lay foundations for the future. "The old promise that if you work hard at school you will get an apprenticeship or a job has been broken. Economic regeneration cannot happen without educational improvement. The stakeholder society can't happen unless we have got a literate and numerate city and every child that leaves our schools has those basic skills. That is quite a leap from where we are now."

He wants Newcastle to redefine the LEAs' role. "We are not a testing ground for Labour party policy, but for schools to be given the freedom to try new ways of doing things. We are taking decisions on the basis of what is right and not what is the easiest political option."

This new, cruel-to-be-kind approach has been starkly illustrated in the decision to close the 560-pupil Blakelaw school even before it had been inspected by the Office for Standards in Education.

"We came to the judgment that the school was in a precarious position and in a pattern of decline," says David Bell. "It is really all about the entitlement of those youngsters to have the best possible education."

Neighbouring Kenton school, already the biggest comprehensive in the city, is bracing itself for an extra intake in September next year after Blakelaw's proposed closure.

Headteacher Mike Gibbons is rightly proud of the advances made on limited resources. "When I first arrived here two-and-a-half-years ago, there were 70 broken windows," he says. Now vandalism is minimal, the corridors are bright with artwork and the school's motto "Education for Life" flies proudly from a flagpole above the entrance.

The last two years have seen the school roll leap from 1,500 to 1,800 and the post-16 staying-on rate has increased from 35 to 51 per cent. The number of adult learners using the school's facilities has shot up from 150 to more than 1,000 since it assumed community school status in 1994. All of which has been recognised with an Investors in People award and a positive OFSTED report, which praised steadily improving results at GCSE. Last year's figures showed a slight decline in the pass rate, but the commitment to raising standards is clearly visible.

Posted on the walls of every classroom are lists of learning objectives and standards of behaviour. The enrolment of more than 80 adults on a university access course exceeded all expectations and non-teaching staff are encouraged to improve their education - one assistant caretaker recently left to take up a university place.

"The explosion in optimism and confidence is dramatic," says Mike Gibbons. "Our buildings are poor and there's a lot of unemployment. But we don't want to hide behind socio-economic factors - none of that should stop a good education. We have got to make demands on our children and we should stand as a beacon of hope for them."

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