If you’ve been following my Eduwhinge escapes, you know what I want – and can freely skip to the next paragraph – but for those who are wondering… I’m annoyed that kids in Bradford and across the North don’t perform as well as those in other areas and don’t go to schools that are as effective as those in the South. Many people have their ideas about how to change things, but the truth is the government knows exactly what to do – after all, it did it, a decade ago, in London. The London Challenge turned London’s schools from worst to best and London’s kids from worst to best performing – and I want to know when it’s our turn.
From the replies, however few, I got from MPs, councilors and Lords (coming soon), it seems that our elected (and unelected) representatives know there’s a problem oop North. Poor kids in Barnsley are 4 times less likely to succeed than poor kids in Westmister; 2/3 of Northern cities are underperforming, and 7 of the bottom 10 worst local education authorities (LEAs) are in the North. What wasn’t apparent, though, was what they intended to do about it. There were some positive noises, and my MP, George Galloway, has ideas which entirely chimed with my own: he wants a Bradford Challenge. I think he should be doing more doing to get it done as a lone voice isn’t going to get the money and impetuous needed to make a real difference. I asked about him getting a group of Northern MPs together to petition the Secretary of State for the kind of intervention and desire to change given to London over a decade ago. He didn’t reply.
However, maybe things are changing, on this side of the Pennines at least.
Cllr Ralph Berry and the Labour led council have big plans: getting every school rated Good or better; improving the recruitment & retention of highly effective educators and school leaders; increasing sharing and collaborative working so that Outstanding schools and leaders support those which Require Improvement or show Serious Weakness.
I think this is a fantastic vision. Bradford Council, often rightly, gets slated, and with standards slipping and attainment plummeting, it feels like, to me at least, that they are determined to reverse decline and, rather than getting their heads above water, or out of the bottom 10 LEAs, they are planning for continued improvement.
However, where’s the support of the MPs? Bradford has five covering Bradford East, West and South, and Keighley & Ilkley and Shipley. I’ve written to all of them about education, with only George Galloway (West) and Philip Davies (Shipley) replying. MPs of every party should be on this. All of them make noises about improving education: for the coalition members (David Ward (LibDem) in East, Kris Hopkins in Keighley and Davies in Shipley (both Con)) this should be a great way to point out that, even with falling budgets locally, councils can still plan for success; for Labour’s Gerry Sutcliffe (South) this should be a great way to celebrate and crow about how Labour’s fighting against coalition education policy and making real change in its heartlands where it’s been accused (including by me) of ignoring its core vote; and by George Galloway (Respect; West) should be applauding the fact that the council are, pretty much, doing what he’s been calling for.
But, in an election year especially, maybe I’m asking too much even if it benefits all their constituents.
In the wider area, Yorkshire & the Humber was named, again, as the worst area for educational achievement at GCSE level. Whilst there are some really great examples of success, such as Calderdale and Kirlees, and even in Bradford with Dixons Trinity which Sam Freedman (Conservative education spokesperson and Director at Teach First) described as the “best school he’d visited”, Yorkshire’s schools and children, generally, underperform.
In a recent blog post, Simon Cooke, a Conservative councilor for Cullingworth, a village in Bradford District, called for the cooperation Bradford council is undertaking but on a larger scale. I usually disagree with Cllr Cooke on politics, but by no means always, and on this we are agreed: he’s calling for Labour’s flagship London Challenge to be rolled out, but with a Tory twist of no more money, just using existing resources. It’s well worth a read and, it seems, is close to what’s being envisioned by LEAs across Yorkshire.
The Yorkshire Post, which generally backs the Conservative party, called for something along the lines of the London Challenge for Yorkshire’s schools in their manifesto for Yorkshire: Educating our youth for all our futures. “Parents in Yorkshire today have a harder task finding good a school than in any other part of England. A child growing up in the county is less likely to go to a school rated as good, grasp the three Rs at primary school level, achieve national GCSE targets at secondary or go into a job, university or college course after they leave school than those living in the regions in the south.” Going on to draw similarities with London’s schools of the 80s & 90s, and wondering, like me, where our Challenge is, The Yorkshire Post knows there’s a problem and has flagged it up. The response from politicians was similar to the ones I got (even though, quite obviously, you’d expect them to care what the YP has to say). “Politicians have, quite rightly, talked about the importance of closing the attainment gap between rich and poor. But they should also focus on the huge variations of academic achievement in different parts of the country” – but the problem is, to my mind, that all we get is talk. If London’s kids got talk, not action, Knowsley, Blackpool and Bradford wouldn’t be bottom, and Yorkshire & the Humber wouldn’t be bottom – London and London’s LEAs would.
Talk is cheap – action on the scale of London Challenge is expensive. But, if they’re worth it, why aren’t we?
More pleasing, and along the lines of a London Challenge, is the plan for a region wide intervention. In 2014, a Pathfinder programme was set up as a small scale pilot to see what works for our kids. This year, a similar summit was told that councils and LEAs must work together and do the same on a grander scale to ensure that our kids get the best possible start in life.
Overall, is Yorkshire doing what the national government can’t or won’t? Well, in my opinion, a bit. London Challenge succeeded because of certain things any Yorkshire version will find hard to match.
Firstly, London’s success came about because of the desire of the national government. MPs didn’t want to send their kids to London’s schools so something needed to be done. With Yorkshire’s MPs making up only a tiny minority of MPs in total, that weight isn’t there, and if they educate their kids in the capital (I don’t know how many do) or if they live in the leafy suburbs of their constituency, their kids probably go to a decent school with decent results. I’m not suggesting MPs don’t see the problem, but I suggesting, maybe, most don’t feel it.
Secondly, that national desire brought with it prestige, investment and support. To change things on this scale, you need a lot of money. When Labour were in power and set up the London Challenge, the country and economy were booming. Now, it seems, we can’t afford to change the fortunes of our kids. Challenge-style interventions in the Midlands and Manchester were terminated as soon as the Coalition came to power – it wasn’t cost effective to educate their kids now that London was fixed. Simon Cooke believes that the money’s already there, and it’s just a mater of making it appealing enough for the better LEAs to support the poorer. I don’t know if I agree and how effective a Challenge on the cheap would be – but as a local politician, with in my opinion a great idea, he’s got to be listened to.
Thridly, and let’s face it, London’s London, so, in the eyes of the media, the politicians, the economy and everything else, London’s the most important place on planet (expect, maybe, for The White House or Kim Kardashian’s cleavage). If London’s failing, the country’s failing; if London’s flourishing, the country’s flourishing.
By that token, now that London’s schools are thriving and its children are attaining, there is no education crisis. I’d like to imagine, though, that we start a virtuous circle of educational reform and revolution: imagine if we took London from worst to best, then we took the North from worst to best, then we took the Midlands from worst to best… and, before long, London’s at the bottom again, and so we start over again, continually building, changing, evolving education.
And so, maybe crowing to MPs and Lords isn’t the way to go – maybe I should be looking smaller, more locally and pushing Bradford’s, Yorkshire’s and the North’s local politicians to do it for themselves. I’d always expected to get ignored by London’s politicians – and I’m glad to say that, at points, I was wrong to assume that – but if we’re capable of doing it for ourselves, why bother with Whitehall when City Hall or Town Hall can actually make the change… if they’re willing.