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We are doing fine on our own

Hull's education chief dismisses damning inspection report on her council. Biddy Passmore reports

You would never know from Helen McMullen's face that Hull is deemed to be a council in distress.

Calm and smiling, the city's education chief (strictly, corporate director of learning and culture) seems unmoved by last week's damning report from the Audit Commission.

It said that Kingston upon Hull city council was still failing its population of a quarter of a million people because poor leadership, in-fighting and bullying by councillors were holding up progress.

Outside experts have been drafted in by John Prescott, deputy prime minister and local MP, to put the authority back on track.

But Mrs McMullen points out that the commission's findings relate to last June. This was just a month after the council had reverted to Labour control after a year under a Lib Dem-Independent coalition - and just after she had joined from the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Skills, the fourth director of education in as many years.

The findings do not reflect her experience, she says. In her six months in Hull, her rapport with and support from councillors have gone "from strength to strength".

"I'm not being bullied, I haven't been bullied," she adds.

She observes that inspections and reviews, while providing valuable feedback, should not turn into a time-consuming distraction from urgently-needed improvements.

The current "crisis" does not seem to have deflected officials, heads and teachers - and councillors - from their determination to raise standards and aspirations in this deprived city, where one in three children comes from a household where no one works.

It has languished at the bottom of league tables ever since the unitary authority of Hull was formed in 1996, its affluent suburbs having been hived off to neighbouring East Yorkshire.

Hull will probably come bottom of the secondary GCSE league table again this year. But the total for five good GCSEs is improving fast - up from 28.5 per cent last year to 32.2 per cent this summer, and set to rise further to 38 per cent in 2004.

There are plans to rebuild or refurbish all 15 secondary schools. The aim is for all to go specialist by 2006-7. The strategy includes 13 children's centres for the under-fives to multi-agency working in secondaries to boosting take-up post-16.

Foredyke primary shows what can be done. The 220-pupil school, where half the pupils are on free meals and a third have special needs, emerged from special measures two years ago thanks to a dynamic new head and deputy. But inspectors said it still had too much "pedestrian teaching".

This week, inspectors described the teaching as "good with a significant amount of very good and some excellent lessons".

Paul Carlisle, the "excellent" head, ascribes the improvement to better relationships within the school, leading to better behaviour by pupils, and encouraging more imaginative teaching rather than a "sit down and shut up" style. He says that the LEA is the most helpful he has worked in.

Kingswood, an 11-16 comprehensive, has also emerged from special measures.

In 2000, it came joint bottom of the GCSE league, with only 2.7 per cent of pupils gaining five or more A to C grades.

Now, the figure has risen to 25 per cent and the target for next year is 33 per cent. Attendance last year was 91 per cent, compared with 72 per cent in the last year of Kingswood's predecessor school. A school that opened with 780 pupils now has nearly 1,100, and will soon reach its capacity of 1,200.

"We have some of the highest-performing and fastest-improving schools in the country and also some of the worst," says Helen McMullen. "We want to reduce the variation."

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