Education fails the disadvantaged

Times Educational Supplement - 18 Oct 2018

Why have I spent almost five years working with others to establish a new multi-academy trust? The answer is simple. Education, as it is currently organised, fails too many children, and particularly those at a disadvantage. Too many children present themselves on their first day of school with their life chances largely determined and, therefore, require vast amounts of additional support to help them catch up with their peers.

How will our trust change this? No teacher needs convincing that extending life chances under existing structures and with current financial constraints isn’t easy. But we’re bringing forward a unique approach.

Of course, we’re building up our trust family from existing schools, but we’re also trying to recast the education puzzle that currently favours the most advantaged pupils.

The report I wrote on foundation years in 2010 had one clear message: the life chances of most children are determined before they go to school. Although there have been notable exceptions, it’s true to say that most efforts so far to equalise life chances before the age of 5 haven’t turned out as we might have wished.

Too many of those providing education for children in the foundation years talked glibly about the “hard to reach” group. This was a wonderful way of blaming the victim. The money Gordon Brown put into the system for the under-5s was to reach this group.

Our trust is forming an alliance with midwives and health visitors to work collaboratively with our schools. At times this will include health professionals operating in our schools so that parents, who perhaps had a rough time at school and are naturally reluctant to engage, get a very different impression. They will see that we’re on their side.

The first school brought into the trust is Wilmslow Grange Primary in Handforth, Cheshire, which excels in primary provision. We’re seeking to extend this provision to babies yet to be born and then, later, ensure that students graduating from our primary school into our secondary have this substantive support carried over. Mark Unwin, the headteacher, has integrated children with special educational needs so successfully that you wouldn’t know, going around the classrooms, who has an education, health and care plan (EHCP) and who does not. This doesn’t mean that these pupils are taught in exactly the same way. Instead, the school recognises that the best way to get good results for and from children with SEND is to integrate their learning as much as possible with other pupils'. The results speak for themselves: the school performs approximately 12,000 places better than its context would suggest.

Our interim CEO, Tom Quinn, runs a comprehensive school whose results match and, in some cases far exceed, the local grammar schools'. This achievement is not at the expense of the most vulnerable. Tom’s school has a strong reputation for closing the gap between the achievement of white working-class boys and the national average.

Just as Tom’s school aspires to achieve the highest outcomes for all pupils in the school, including some of the more challenging cohorts, we are committed to having a number of schools in our trust that are committed entirely to the children with the most severe disadvantages.

Two schools in Birkenhead that are a model for the whole country, and who serve children with special needs, have already applied to become part of our trust. We’re also seeking ways of making provision for pupils and students who have been excluded from mainstream schools.

We hope to announce soon that our bids for two rebrokered secondary schools have been successful. Our team will be meeting parents so that they can hear for themselves what our record is. They can judge whether we are suitable people to look after their children’s education, given the less than acceptable record of their previous sponsor.

We’re also applying for a free school in an area that appears only too happy to shoehorn children into failing schools in an attempt to show that there is no shortage of places. Those parents cannot get their first choice and have to put up with second or third best.

This is our ethos and it will be clear from these schools what we are trying to achieve in practice. I bring a Christian ethic to our whole endeavour, as do other people. Although I know parents are most interested in how well their children are going to do in school, these formative years will help shape the adults they become.

Saying that each child is sacred is all too easy, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Our schools will have to live up to these highest of ideals so that parents realise these aren’t yet more platitudes but an actual programme of work. We’ll be judged on whether we’re meeting our objectives in maximising their children’s talents, whatever they may be.

There has been a huge amount of work behind the scenes over the past five years to get to this position. If the obstacles we’ve met are typical then I’m sure many reformers give up.

We’ve been extra fortunate to have an education minister who wants to give us a fair wind to put our ideal into practice and regional schools commissioners who have bought into our vision and are helping us to fulfil our objectives.

We hope to release more good news soon. In the meantime, we’ll be getting on with the very rewarding work of growing our trust and working with our new schools to put our ideals into practice.