One of the achievements I am most proud of is the way in which the gap between the richest and poorest pupils was narrowed by a Labour Government. Analysis carried out by the Financial Times showed that between 2006 and 2010 there was a “sustained improvement in the results of children from the poorest neighbourhoods”.
However, there are still too many pupils in too many schools who don’t achieve their full potential. Addressing this inequality is central to our fight for a One Nation education system.
I have termed this challenge the ‘Arc of Underachievement’.
This Arc of Underachievement runs through many of our seaside towns and coastal cities. In places such as Clacton, Torbay and Morecambe, there are too many schools which are below the national average for GCSE results.
If you take Cornwall – the probability that a poor child will have GCSE results in the bottom quarter nationally increased by 8% between 2006 and 2010. Whereas in Southwark, the probability decreased by 7%.
There is also an Arc of Underachievement that includes a number of Northern towns and cities in England – including some schools in places such as Hull, Blackpool and Knowsley.
I know that by naming these places, it will produce a defensive reaction.
I am not for one minute saying that all schools or teachers in these areas are not up to scratch.
Some schools are improving, and there is much good practice, but as fighters for social justice, we must not fear to challenge the fact that poor pupils are not making the most of their potential.
As a Labour party, we must fight the idea that ‘you don’t know what we are working with – you can’t turn coal into diamond.’ If that was the case, why is that children in places like Jarrow defy the odds?
There are many beacons of excellence which we should celebrate – places like Bolton, Bury and Manchester in the North West, or Lambeth, Hackney and Tower Hamlets in London.
Michael Gove thinks the only way to improve a school is to make it an academy. Labour’s academy programme achieved great things, but changing a school’s governance structure is no guarantee of success. The most important factor is the quality of teaching and leadership – and that happens in schools of all types.
I think there are three ways in which we can tackle the Arc of Underachievement, to ensure that no school is left behind.
First, is to improve the quality of teaching. That means working with existing heads and teachers to provide better training and support. It also means expanding schemes like Teach First which brings in high flying graduates, and places them in schools in tougher neighbourhoods. I also want to examine the case for providing a rebate on teacher tuition fees if you agree to teach in a school in a poorer part of the country for a minimum of two years.
Second, it is about stronger schools supporting weaker schools. The London Challenge and the City Challenge set up under Labour helped achieve a startling turnaround in the fortunes of schools in the capital and in Manchester. Instead of pitting schools against each other, as Michael Gove would like, we encouraged better school collaboration, and built a sense of pride in the education service. I would extend these challenges to areas in the North and coastal towns that need additional support.
The third element is the wider children’s agenda and investing in the early years. This was a central priority of the last Labour Government, but the Tories are turning back the clock. There are 281 fewer Sure Start centres compared to 2010. Early Intervention budgets are facing a staggering cut of over 40% over the course of this parliament, as over £1.1billion is taken out of programmes to help troubled families, fund children’s centres and provide breaks for families with disabled children. As any parent or teacher will tell you, giving a child the best start in life starts well before primary school.
Ed Miliband set out a radical and progressive vision for Britain when he talked about One Nation Labour. One Nation Education will be fundamental to addressing the divided country we face today – and rebuilding our economy so it works for working people.
What is needed is a relentless drive on school improvement which is focussed on clear leadership, early intervention and effective collaboration. To ensure that no school is left behind.
Stephen Twigg MP is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList