Friday, 30 October 2015

Equality and opportunity is bedrock of good education - my Catholic Universe column

This week two stories have caught my eye which have caused me to search my soul and perhaps reconsider my views on our education system. Let me elaborate.

I first became a member of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair. As thousands of traditional socialists were leaving Labour, a great many in response to the Iraq War whilst others were departing because of New Labour’s ‘neoliberal’ approach, I was marching in the opposite direction because I could see how a great many ordinary, middle and working class people were flourishing under the party.

I liked what Tony Blair had to say. I was more than happy, and still am, for people to get on and make money so long as they pay their fair share of taxation to enable those at the bottom to be protected.

Frankly I’ve never particularly given two hoots about the gap between rich and poor. What’s been more important to me is that those people who live in poverty can be helped and encouraged to work their way out of it through a fair benefit system and real equality of opportunity.

When I first signed up to the Labour Party I very much liked the fact that on the whole what we were bothered about was not processes but outcomes. Mr Blair and his colleagues were never too concerned about the rights and wrongs of public versus private sector, their real objective was about services being the best possible for everyone for the money available.

Although, certainly in Labour Party circles, Mr Blair is the socialist equivalent of Lord Voldemort I still think many of his solutions, his ‘third way’ if you will, was the right approach.

One of the areas that fifteen years ago the still fresh Labour Government placed a great deal of emphasis on was the inception of academy schools.

In these days of rebirth for Labour I know we are now all supposed to be against academies, they smack too much of the private sector, but how can we be?

I was struck to read this week that there are now more than 400 Catholic schools up and running in England as academies. It made me quite proud to know that it was a Labour Government who started the path of conversion, which in fairness the Conservative Government has continued and broadened, which enables faith schools to effectively steer their own course.

Catholics have always known that we benefit from some of the finest state schools that there are, surely it makes sense to allow them to improve semi-independently, using their own expertise, rather than force upon them a raft of centralising diktats?

Funnily enough the press release issued by the Catholic Education Service last week quotes my home diocese of Nottingham where now more than 60% of our faith schools are academies.

In a quote the Nottingham Diocesan Director of Education Peter Giorgio said ‘Academies provide schools with the autonomy to cater for the educational needs of their pupils. What’s more academy status gives Catholic schools greater freedom to develop their commitment to the formation of the whole child.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Of course, not all academy schools just like not all maintained schools are successful but it is worth noting the difference between converter academies – those good and outstanding schools who have chosen to go down the route of conversion – versus sponsored academies – struggling schools who have for want of a better word have been pushed through the process under the guidance and management of a theoretically high performing sponsor. Fortunately faith schools largely fall into the former category.

It takes time for outcomes to be effectively measured in a child’s life and therefore a few years into the widespread adoption of the academies program independent comparison of them against maintained schools is still a little threadbare.

In January of last year the Department for Education carried out an analysis of schools that had converted to academy status voluntarily and their OFSTED inspection outcomes. The key findings were encouraging.

Primary converter academies that were previously rated as ‘outstanding’ were more likely to retain that status at their next inspection than local authority maintained schools. ‘Good’ schools were more likely to progress to a better rating and less likely to slip back than their LEA counterparts.

The same was true, although at more marginal rates, for converter secondary academies.

It should never be the job of government to tell good parents how to raise their children but rather to enable them to do so in the best way they see fit. The Labour Party should be proud that they set the ball rolling for parents with faith to have their children educated under a system that is increasingly working and will in the longer term produce far improved outcomes.

Not all is rosy in education however.

As opposed to academies, which can be of great benefit to communities and all of the children who live in them, grammar schools are anathemas, simply put they should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is no other way to describe a system which consigns children at the age of eleven to a category of being first, or second, rate. But that is exactly what grammar schools through the 11 plus do.

Proponents of grammar schools may argue for their fairness and that selection is based on academic ability but the facts are stark.

This week the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, approved plans for the first new grammar school in Britain in 50 years.

The Weald of Kent school based in Tonbridge have effectively side stepped the ban on new selective schools by seeking to open a 450 place ‘annex’ in the town of Sevenoaks more than seven miles away.

If leaks are to be believed neither Mrs Morgan, nor indeed Mr Cameron, were overly enamoured by the idea of establishing such a school but the legal advice provided to them was clear that turning down such an application may well lead to loss under judicial review.

Whatever the truth similar applications will follow from existing state funded grammar schools up and down the country.

Government’s role should always be to promote the concept of equality of opportunity and yet grammar schools perhaps do more to prevent the notion than any other single thing.

Reporting in The Times shows that Kent has more grammar schools than any other local authority but by the County Council’s own admission only 3 per cent of children attending them were entitled to free school meals, the comparative rate in the county’s comprehensive schools is 15 per cent.

Children in Kent who fail their 11 plus exam are sadly being consigned to the dustbin of education, unintentionally I am sure, from an age when they should be enjoying playing football or climbing trees.

Nationally 34 per cent of children in receipt of free schools meals achieve 5 ‘good’ GCSE’s including English and Maths. In Kent statistics show just over 1 in 4 children from poorer homes end their secondary schooling with benchmark expectations.

It’s a universal truism that parents want the very best for their children. I know I do.

I want to see my offspring have the chance to go to a good, Catholic school that can keep striving to improve under whatever system of governance is best for it but the last thing I and, I think, countless other parents want is to see children, mine or anyone else’s, rooted out at 11 to stagnate in what are all but in name a system of secondary moderns which were not fit for purpose 40 years ago.

Let us sincerely hope if the Secretary for Education truly does not support the establishment of new grammar schools  that whatever loopholes have allowed the creation of one in Kent can be ironed out swiftly.

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