Birmingham School That `Opts Out' Rises Up

BAVERSTOCK School on the outskirts of Birmingham lies at the heart of one of the city's grimiest, most deprived areas. It provides a strong case for thinking that British Education Secretary John Patten's education reforms (see story above) are on the right track.

Three years ago, headteacher Roger Perks urged parents to take what he says was a "demoralized, dilapidated school" out of the Birmingham local-education authority's control.

The parents, fed up with leaking roofs, unsafe, unpainted walls, and the school's dismal education record, voted for change by a margin of 3 to 1. As a result, Mr. Perks says, the ethos of Baverstock "has improved out of all recognition."

"Parents know that examination results are getting better all the time," he says, "and the children, instead of daubing rude words on the walls, are planting flowers."

To the charge, voiced by critics of opting out, that cutting ties with the local-education authority and raising teaching standards would cause Birmingham's prosperous middle-class parents to swamp a working-class school with their children, Perks replies with an unanswerable statistic.

Currently, 95 percent of the 1,200 pupils in the school come from the high-rise flats of nearby Druid's Heath council estate (public housing), compared with 75 percent in 1989.

Perks says that if he wanted to he could "fill the school with kids from suburbia," but that was not what education at Baverstock is about.

He explains: "This year only 31 children out of an intake of 240 came to us with an English and mathematical age above their chronological age. So the vast majority of our new pupils require some form of remedial teaching, which means extremely good teaching."

Before Baverstock School won its freedom, the school was eight or nine teachers short of what it needed, and Perks had only 28,000 British pounds ($50,000) a year to spend on books, computers, and other equipment.

"By opting out, we immediately acquired about 400,000 British pounds ($716,000) to spend on essential needs," he said. "This enabled us to recruit 10 specialist teachers, buy many more books, increase the number of computers from 24 to 150, and build a science lab and sports hall."

Baverstock's decision to opt out continues to win an extraordinary degree of approval. Last March, a television station commissioned a follow-up ballot of the parents. In a 92-percent turnout, 99 percent said they favored the new system.

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