First challenge: Get the pupils through the door

Last week saw the annual parade by the Department For Education of everything from achievements at GCSE and A level to absenteeism and pupil "point scores."

But the much-hyped "league tables" of academic excellence are not a level playing field, says a headteacher at one of the most challenged schools in Leeds.

In all, eight schools in the city failed to make the tougher new Government target of 35 per cent achieving five A-C grades in their GCSEs, including English and Maths.

Three were academies set up by the last Government in areas where schools had previously failed.

However, at South Leeds Academy, which came 39th out of the 41 schools cited in the statistics, headteacher Colin Bell fiercely defends his school's track-record

"There's no point pretending that we are where we want to be but we are taking serious steps to tackle the problem and making inroads," says the blunt-speaking Liverpudlian who previously taught for many years at an inner-city comprehensive in Manchester.

As he acknowledges, one of the biggest problems at South Leeds Academy is absenteeism.

The statistics showed that the school has the third worst record in the country of pupils going AWOL. More than one in five were classed as persistent absentees, with 20.1 per cent missing the equivalent of a day a week.

But as Mr Bell points out, the reasons why so many children are missing from the classroom are complex ones.

"The problem is we are a school where a high proportion of our intake habitually head back with their families to their "home country" for up to six weeks at a time.

"Around 23 per cent of our students are from a black, Asian or other ethnic minority background with cultural reasons why they miss school.

"But there are still far too many parents who are simply keeping their kids at home as an easier option than sorting out childcare issues.

There's no getting away from that. So we have done a lot to improve the figures and already made a significant difference this year."

Since last year's statistics were compiled, South Leeds Academy has reduced its overall absentee rate by five per cent.

"A lot of it is sheer legwork, getting the parents to understand the long-term impact of poor attendance and that it means kids who could get decent grade Cs at GCSE are getting Ds and Es instead. It's a long-term issue ."

The catchment area for South Leeds Academy is a long way in terms of affluence and aspiration from the 100 per cent GCSE "gold standard" achieved by a selective school in Rugby.

Its "feeder" areas include Beeston, Hunslet, and Belle Isle, all with high levels of unemployment and other social challenges.

Mr Bell said: "Sixty per cent of the pupils here are two years or more below their reading age and need serious help with literacy problems.

"This presents a huge challenge and does make our task all the more difficult. The school has greater emphasis on visual learning and practical demonstrations, as well as additional teaching support."

The list of GCSE titles at South Leeds Academy includes "Applied Learning" options which Education Minister Michael Gove is unlikely to have encountered in his years at an independent school in Aberdeen. They include Health and Social care, Business and ICT, and Hospitality and Catering.

Mr Bell concludes: "Let's not dress it up. We need to do better. But when you actually look at the number of five A-C GCSE grades with a wider range of subjects, we get 72 per cent. That's a good news story. Our curriculum offer is that our kids are given the opportunity to do courses which will help them into employment but we also offer an academic curriculum which does allow for the traditional subjects and taps into what students need to ensure their potential.

"We are a school that's making progress. We want to be further down the road than we are now and push our way up the league table but along the way we are making sure that every one of our children does the very best they can in often challenging circumstances."

Every school to have green lessons

An eco-friendly programme designed to teach children and young people how to live greener lives at home and in the classroom is to be launched in schools across Leeds.

The Sustainable Schools Framework, which aims to educate pupils about protecting the environment, started life as a pilot project involving 30 schools.

Now it is being rolled out to all 263 schools in the city.

Education Leeds has already set a target for all schools in the city to be "outstanding" sustainable schools by 2020.

The initiative was launched on Tuesday by Weetwood Primary School headteacher Tarsem Wyatt, who was among the first to sign up to the initiative. Her pupils, right, are now enjoying the benefits of their own home-grown fruit and vegetables.

Nigel Richardson, director of children's services, said:"Many sectors of society are moving towards becoming more sustainable and our schools should be no different. The roll out will ensure our schools are leading the way in adopting a green stance and that our children and young people will learn about the impact their lives can have on the world around them."

College delight at report rating

STAFF and students at Leeds College of Building are celebrating the results of an Ofsted inspection.

Principal Ian Billyard said they were thrilled to be given the best grade possible in several key areas.

He said: "In all, 11 inspectors spent a week at the College closely observing lessons across our seven sites and talking to some of our 7, 000 students and staff about their experiences. We are delighted to have been given an overall 'good' grade and four areas of activity were given an 'outstanding' grade.

"We were measured on how well our students do, the quality of the provision we provide, how we lead, manage and govern the College, safeguard our students and the provision we make to ensure effective equality and diversity. "

The Ofsted report revealed that pass rates were "very high" on most courses. Areas singled out as "outstanding" included the College's ability to meeting the needs and interests of students, governance, partnership work and educational visits. Praise by the inspectors was also heaped on the College's ability to get sponsorship for award events.

Ian Billyard added: "We are particularly proud of the fact that our partnerships with businesses and other educational providers were judged as outstanding as were the wide range of construction courses offered. "We work really hard to ensure that our students and partners get all the support they need so that everyone benefits from the skills they are learning."

Ofsted grades available to schools and colleges are 1 for outstanding; 2 for good; 3 for satisfactory; and 4 for inadequate.