Ben Bradley is MP for Mansfield.
There was a lot of talk during the general election of “levelling up” across the country and about boosting our towns and regions that have the least.
These former industrial heartlands have often struggled; the industries that once sustained them have largely disappeared. They need new infrastructure and better connectivity but, most importantly to communities like mine in Mansfield, they need us to level up our education system.
If we want people to be able to live independently as adults and to take advantage of every life opportunity, we must ensure that they have access to the right kind of support in schools and colleges regardless of their postcode.
Some schools have been failing so consistently over the years that a watchdog report recently described them as “dumping grounds”. And no matter which statistics you flick through, it’s clear that those most regularly being let down the most by these failing schools are white, working class boys – often in those exact communities that have just voted Conservative for the first time.
This Government’s mission is to ensure that these young people don’t miss out on life’s opportunities, and that we stop wiping out generations of talent.
I’m proud of our efforts to raise standards across academic subjects, benefitting millions of pupils and transforming lives across the country with huge improvements in English and Maths in particular. But if we want to make a meaningful difference in these schools and amongst these communities, we’ve got to try something different.
Levelling up opportunity in education means two things: first, that we allow a degree of flexibility in the National Curriculum and, second, that we provide for additional intervention and support in the toughest of our schools.
Failing schools in particular must be allowed to be flexible to meet local need. Communities across the country are packed with talent, but these gifts don’t necessarily fit into the box the curriculum tries to squeeze them into.
Many kids in these schools often see little point in getting good GCSEs, not least because their parents often don’t have much formal education, and can’t therefore extol the virtues of it. When home life gets chaotic, when mum and dad aren’t exactly pushing them to get their homework done, and when it’s a real struggle just to make it into school routinely, these kids need a type of education that really captures their interest and imagination and that feels engaging and useful – not just repetitive tasks and memory tests.
School kids are telling me that they aren’t interested in learning to become second rate computer operators or to recite the names of the Tudor monarchs. They don’t feel they will use these subjects again or that these subjects bear any relevance to the lives that they are living.
So let’s stop forcing all students down the same, traditional, nineteenth-century path and teach them something meaningful and relevant, which aligns with their goals and the goals of their community, and that nurtures their human talents.
This flexibility will allow schools to focus much more on teaching practical problem-solving rather than just theory; on art, music and sport, the Scouts and the Duke of Edinburgh Award – and they should be rewarded for doing so.
Imagine the enthusiasm that these kids will have for school when their education revolves around preparing them for the world of work, teaching them to be creative and entrepreneurial, to come up with bold ideas and to develop their leadership and teamwork skills. Imagine empowering teaching professionals to deliver what works for their class.
Alongside this new teaching flexibility in failing schools, we must develop a bolder approach. We must intervene fundamentall – not just install another academy chain to take over where three previous ones have failed. We must introduce additional incentives for the best teachers to come and get involved in these schools and ensure that we use those extra powers to remove bad teachers too – they do exist.
We need “super-nanny” style leadership teams who can take on the toughest challenges and students, equipping these crack teams of life-changers with the resources and flexibility in the curriculum to deliver real and genuine change that suits the community and the students.
Early intervention changes lives. “Nurture groups”, for example, offer children a phased introduction and more one to one support so that they can cope in primary schools. For kids with chaotic lives, the transition to full time schooling can be a huge challenge. Initiatives such as these, alongside the work of children’s services and other organisations, have a huge impact later in their lives in terms of their mental health and attainment – which is better for them and the taxpayer.
This twin track approach to education reform is wholly conservative. We would be identifying vulnerable communities that desperately need our help, trusting and giving responsibility to the country’s best teachers, intervening where it is required and giving teachers and their schools the resources and control they need to turn these areas around.
I’ve seen amazing schools that have strict discipline and grammar school-style education as well as equally wonderful schools that focus instead on technical and vocational skills or on creative subjects. Both kinds of school have a place, and more besides. It needs to be a choice. Education is not ‘one-size fits all’, it’s ‘horses for courses’.
Let’s make the changes we need so that our education system truly supports everyone to fulfil their potential, to raise their aspirations, to contribute ideas to our society and to build great hopes for their families’ futures. Grapple with this today and we will make a meaningful difference to people’s lives not just in five years time but for generations to come.