When Conservatives regained control of Croydon Council back in 2006, attainment in our secondary schools was below national average. Labour blamed this on some parents choosing to send their children to one of the outstanding independent schools in the borough or the high-attaining grammar schools across the border in Bromley and Sutton (about one in three parents who chose to send their child to a Croydon primary school did not go on to choose a Croydon secondary school and it was many of the most able pupils who were leaving the system).
But this was a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The truth was that many of our secondary schools simply weren’t good enough. In several of them, only a quarter of pupils were achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths. So we took the decision to close five schools – Stanley Tech, Coulsdon High, Ashburton, Haling Manor and Selsdon High – and replace them with new academies, two sponsored by Harris, two by Oasis and one by our top-performing local school, Coloma Convent Girls School.
Today – in Croydon at least – closing a poor-performing school is relatively uncontroversial, provided you find the right sponsor. But back in 2008, this was a hugely controversial decision. It was opposed by the teaching unions of course but also by Andrew Pelling, my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for Croydon Central; by Croydon Labour Party (including my Labour opponent at the last Election who bizarrely called Ashburton a "good community school" despite the fact that it’s results were shocking and hardly any local parents sent their children there); and by some parents, who despite the fact that their child’s school clearly needed drastic improvement understandably worried that change might make things worse before they got better.
In the event, the improvement – in terms of the day-to-day management of the schools and the behaviour of pupils in the local community – was immediate. And with the odd blip – as you would expect because some cohorts are more able than others – results have improved consistently. Take the two schools in my constituency:
- The Oasis Academy Shirley Park replaced Ashburton in September 2009. In August 2009, just 26% of Ashburton students got 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths; four years later that figure has more than doubled to 64%; and
- The Quest Academy replaced Selsdon High in September 2010. In August 2010, just 23% of Selsdon High students got 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths; three years later that figure has nearly trebled to 63%.
They haven't delivered these improvements by changing their admission criteria – the pupils who achieved these results were already at the schools when they became academies. The transformation is solely due to the change in leadership and the resulting improvements in the quality of teaching and the ethos of the schools – and it has led to these schools becoming community schools again, with local parents having the confidence to send their children there.
Nor is it just these schools, or the new Harris academies at Purley and South Norwood that replaced Haling Manor and Stanley Tech, that have improved. The new academies doing better than the schools they replaced has forced middle-performing schools to raise their game.
Today Croydon’s schools perform significantly better than the national average, despite the fact that many of our brightest young people still go to independent schools in Croydon or grammar schools in neighbouring boroughs. This year, 68% of pupils achieved 5 A*-C passes including English and maths. That’s up four percentage points from 2012 at a time when there was a fall nationally.
First and foremost, these results are down to the hard work of teachers, support staff and pupils themselves. But we should also give a hat-tip to the councillors who pushed through the changes that have already done so much to improve the life-chances of our young people and to the academy sponsors and national politicians like Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove that made it possible. Today, our schools are better than the national average and improving much quicker. It is one of our Conservative Council’s greatest achievements.