Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.
The last 18 months have put unimaginable strain on our schools. Taking children out of school and reducing lesson plans to laptops has disproportionately undermined the education of the most disadvantaged in society. There is rightly a focus on getting school back to where they were before the pandemic. But in my experience as a former teacher and member of the Education Select Committee this will be nowhere near enough.
Levelling up has come to mean a wealth of different things, but ultimately it comes down to improving opportunity. We all have talent. We can all work hard and have high aspirations. But tragically, our opportunity to make the most of that talent or aptitude is not distributed evenly around the country. And there is no part of society where this is more true, and more important, than in our schools system – as an important report from the thinktank Onward and the charity the New Schools Network sets out today.
To give an example, Progress 8 scores in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent are ranked the seventh lowest in the country. Of the fifteen mainstream secondary schools in the area, only one is rated Outstanding by Ofsted, but five are rated Requires Improvement. That means for families in my constituency, an area rich in ambition but poor in educational opportunity, children are falling behind their peers around the rest of the country. This isn’t their fault. And my constituents rightly expect the Government to do something about it.
Over the past decade, Conservative reforms to the education sector have transformed outcomes for young people across all regions. Free schools are the highest performing types of state school, and are more likely to be rated Outstanding. Academy trusts are leading the way on collaboration and improvement. New teachers are getting a good starting salary of £30,000. But too many areas remain untouched by the positives, and sweeping interventions, like the Opportunity Areas programme, fail to capture many of those areas languishing in a state of perpetual stagnation. This is evidenced by the fact that places like Knowsley, Hartlepool and Middlesborough sat in the bottom decile for GCSE attainment in 1998 and remain their today – try telling a parent in one of these towns that education has improved.
There are other issues too. In my constituency, talented kids can’t easily travel to attend a better secondary school nearby, with the neighbouring local authorities of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stafford and Staffordshire Moorlands only having one Outstanding secondary school between them. As a means of contrast, there are eight Outstanding secondary schools in Westminster and 16 more in neighbouring Camden, Kensington and Chelsea, and Southwark.
This pattern is replicated across the country. In places like Doncaster, Blackpool, Scarborough and Fenlands, parental choice over which schools their children attend is stifled, almost meaningless, because so few options are rated Good or Outstanding. In many cases, schools have been underperforming for years, stuck in a pernicious cycle that attracts fewer good teachers, undermines long term governance, and sustains a culture of low aspiration.
This week the Education Select Committee, which I sit on, highlighted how one group in particular is affected by weak education: White working class kids. The figures are shocking. Just 17.7 per cent of White British children eligible for free school meals achieve a Grade 5 (akin to a Grade C in the old system) or above in English and maths at GCSE, versus 22.5 per cent amongst all pupils in receipt of free meals. As the report set out, White British pupils underperform at every stage of the school journey.
At least part of this story is likely to be about geography as well as cultural background. Many of the places which have the weakest schools in terms of quality are also places with disproportionate White British populations. While many of the places with the best schools according to Ofsted are in ethnically diverse, inner city areas, especially London.
That’s why we need to level up education. To give normal families in areas so often overlooked a real chance to make the most of their talents and achieve their potential, no matter where they go to school. That means a long-term, radical plan for school reform as set out in this report. Not accepting underperformance, using proven and experienced academy trusts as a vehicle for change, opening more free schools where they are needed, backing great teachers who can make the difference.
The education sector faces multiple challenges ahead as we recover from the pandemic. We can either grasp the moment to deliver lasting change, fixing multi-generational disadvantage, or let it slip and have this conversation again in five years time. I believe we must choose the former. Anything less is not only a disservice to children in Stoke-on-Trent, Knowsley, Doncaster, Derbyshire and elsewhere, but a guarantee that our efforts to level up will only go so far.