The regrettable, if predictable, row over this year’s GCSE results risks masking both the achievements and efforts of this year’s students, but also important trends in education attainment in some of the most challenging parts of the country.
First, on so-called grade inflation, I fully support Michael Gove’s efforts to create more consistency across GCSEs and restore confidence in an exam system, not least for future employers. However it would be entirely wrong if the goal posts had been moved for a particular group of children halfway through their two-year exam and study period.
Second, the results also confirm long term improvements in some of the most deprived parts of the country. The average in my area, Westminster, for pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths is now around 75%. 4 years ago this was around 46%, a quite staggering turn around and achievement.
London now has the highest achieving schools in the country in terms of pupil progress, or narrowing the gap between the poorest and most privileged pupils. Within the capital Westminster is out front despite some of the most severe pockets of deprivation anywhere in the country. Children in some of the poorest wards now outperform their counterparts elsewhere. Indeed, a child in Westminster can expect to beat a child with the same characteristics in a similarly advantaged neighbourhood by more than two grades in every subject.
Of course this improvement is down to the hard work of heads, teachers and pupils but also, I believe, because of the actions of the local authority in taking an active and positive role in our schools including, where necessary, in providing challenge.
In 2008, Westminster Council took the decision to set up an independent Westminster Education Commission to tackle a local system that was erratic and characterised by occasionally difficult relationships with schools.
Its conclusions recommended measures like working with schools on extended services, providing more opportunities for children with SEN and ensuring children with behavioural and emotional needs got the support they needed in a mainstream school environment. And this is what we have done through a range of targeted interventions together with an overhaul of early years provision.
The Council has also invested in schools. For two years running we have given every secondary school £60,000 to spend on specialist teaching.
It’s also worth mentioning that a similar trajectory of improvement has been taking place in our primary schools, and the benefits of this are now filtering into our secondary system. The positive impact of our primary-to-secondary school transfer support is also taking hold and better preparing pupils for secondary school.
I also passionately believe that schools do not exist in isolation. There is no point having beacons of academic excellence if the moment a child steps out of the school gates they are hit with issues of deprivation, broken families, crime, drug abuse and so on. Recognising this, we have also worked hard in tackling these challenging social issues. Our zero tolerance approach to gangs and our family recovery scheme being perhaps the most notable. It is also doesn’t end there. We are also working hard with local employers to try to ensure that every school leaver has a job, training or apprenticeship to go to.
I maintain that local authorities have a critical role in driving up local education standards, assisting schools and where necessary in challenging them. This is a role that may not be championed too often on the pages of Conservative Home with councils all too often seen as the bogey men of the education system acting as blockers of change. But in the best local authorities this couldn’t be further from the truth. We don’t want to run schools but we damn right want to know that every school is performing as well as it could be and giving our children the best possible start in life.
That’s why it is right that the debate over the future role of local authorities in supporting and driving up school standards continues. To this end I, and the Cabinet Member for Education in Essex, Cllr Stephen Castle have organised a meeting at this year’s party conference for local Conservative education members. The meeting is at 10.30am, 9th October in Hall 8B in the ICC and we have also invited the Conservative education ministerial team. I hope that you will come along if, like me you care as much about your local schools as I do. As the results and success from this year’s GCSE results in Westminster show, it is a debate that is well worth having.