|Education in Hampshire - Conference held in Andover
22 Sep 2007
Two Heads of local Andover Schools spoke at a conference on Education in Andover, held at St John the Baptist Church Hall, where they were joined by local MP Sir George Young and the Executive Member for Childrens' Services, County Councillor David Kirk.
Opening the conference, Sir George said that education was a partnership between teachers and parents. "It needs commitment from both sides to stimulate and bring out the best in a child. Neither side can totally compensate for failings in the other; it is unrealistic to expect a school totally to make up for an unsatisfactory home life, though many teach a child some of the social skills normally learned at home. A prosperous and stable home life will give any child a head start in life, denied to his less fortunate contemporary."
Sir George said that a bad head can blight a school for years, and it should be easier to replace one than it is at the moment. "I have seen it as a parent, and as an MP. Likewise, a good head can, given time, turn a school round. I am not suggesting Heads should be like football managers, but a more open market approach might be a good thing."
Sir George said there were good practical and libertarian reasons for a strong independent sector. "Many of the best schools are in the independent sector – just look at this year's Oxbridge admissions – and it would be perverse, when we need a well-educated population to compete in today's world, to knock out the country’s best schools. And there are libertarian issues. If someone who has paid through his taxes to have his child educated in the state sector chooses not to take up the place, but to pay again to have the child educated privately, he should be free to do so."
"The goals we should aim at – and it is a long way off – is to make the state schools so good that nearly every parent is happy to send their children to them; and so to reduce the number of people who cannot really afford private education, but who have lost confidence in local schools and feel morally obliged to “do the best for their kids”.
As a country, Sir George said we had got to do better and get education right.
"Four out of five youngsters getting a custodial sentence have no qualifications. More than two thirds of prisoners are illiterate. At the moment, 43% of 11 year olds cannot read write and add up properly. In July this year, 20000 pupils left school without a single GCSE."
Sir George said there should be greater independence for our teachers. "They are becoming glorified form-fillers. There are now more external targets and criteria set for schools from Whitehall than days in the school year. The result? 93% of teachers say paperwork is distracting them from their job, and increasing numbers are retiring early. We need a bonfire of controls, and to give teachers back their self-confidence to do the vocational job they are trained to do."
Charlie Currie, Head of Harroway School in Andover and Margaret Langley, Head of Rookwood School spoke of the challenges they faced in running their schools.
Mr Currie said that the key question in education was how to respond to the inclusion agenda, while driving up standards. He described Harroway as a good and improving school, with a stable and experienced teaching force. It was expanding, with an extra 50 pupils in each of the last 3 years. He described the pupils as creative, approachable and self-confident, and said the regime was "nice strict" as opposed to "mean strict".
The challenge was to bring up to speed those children who arrived from primary school with a below-average reading age. 20% of those at age 11 had a reading age of 8, which made it difficult for them to follow the text books. He described how the school focussed on those students to enable them to catch up by the end of the year.
He said the key was to get the right balance between challenging a student, and supporting a student. He said the school had a "buzz" and the atmosphere was business-like and learning-oriented. He recognised the problems that many students faced at home, where there might be issues of mental stress and drugs, and paid tribute to the work of the Family Learning Centre, pioneered by the late Jean Lannie. Looking at the issues in Andover more generally, he said the challenge was to win back the 500 students who chose secondary schools outside Andover rather than the three in the town.
There was also a continuing need to encourage students to take a long-term view of their employment prospects, and not leave school at the first opportunity and take up a job with restricted career opportunities. Better links were also needed with local industry.
Margaret Langley said that the independent sector was very diverse, and needed to work with the maintained sector. They both had a common interest in educating children.
People chose the independent sector because of the lower class sizes - 12 to 18 at Rookwood -, the sports facilities, the freedom the schools had with the curriculum; and because of the traditional values often associated with the independent sector - uniform and good manners. Many had to compete with selective grammar schools, and also had to compete with the maintained sector on salary levels, while only being to rely on school fees.
Not all independent schools had Foundations or generous sponsors and benefactors, and there were often financial challenges in balancing the books. The independent sector educated about 10% of the school population, and to the extent that the maintained sector did not have to provide places for those children, it took some of the pressure off local education authorities. Some support services available to children if they attended maintained school were not available to children if they attended independent schools. She mentioned the shortage of suitably qualified teachers in certain subjects as a strategic problem for both the maintained and independent sectors.
David Kirk complimented Charlie Curry on the recent exam results at his school and spoke of the challenges facing the education authority. It was the second largest education authority in the country, with a budget of some £800m for 175,000 pupils under 16, with additional numbers over that age.
The new Childrens Act had provided a broader context in which schools operate, reflected in the change of his brief from Executive Member for Education, to Executive Member for Childrens' Services. A further change was the "14-19 Agenda", under which responsibility and funds would pass from the Learning and Skills Council to the County.
The County Council also had some responsibility for the independent sector, and he was aware of the issues raised by the recent changes to Charity Law.
One of the county's schools had come top of all schools in the UK in terms of highest value added in the 11-16 age group. With falling school rolls, the issues of closures could not be ducked, and there was an historic problem with Scola buildings, which were now getting tired. Some areas of the county were underperforming, and the solution to this was greater involvement by local businesses, greater aspiration amongst the students, and combatting parent apathy. While the county had many good schools, he was anxious that they should not "coast" and should do even better. Local education authorities had a key role to play in driving up standards in schools, and a centralised system, with schools funded and managed from Whitehall, would be simply unworkable. He emphasised the need for a good range of business opportunities to be available to school-leavers to raise aspirations, and expressed concern that the outcome of this year's Comprehensive Spending Review would be less favourable to education than earlier ones. He defended the County's policy of resisting pressure from Central Government to close special schools, saying they had a key role to play in helping those pupils who simply couldn't cope in mainstream schools.
After the opening speeches, the conference broke into discussion groups, from which the following points emerged. Governors had a key role to play in both challenging and supporting the Head, and there was a need for more people to come forward as Governors and for better training for them; Home Education had an important, if small in percentage terms, role to play and some of the hurdles facing those who educated their children at home should be removed; there could be a role for summer camps to enable children who were falling behind to catch up - although there were funding issues involved; the role of OFSTED should be reined back; a clear message should go out to parents that there should be a real commitment to the school, and that they had responsibilities for the behaviour of their children; there was a case for teaching children out of their chronological age; and the way resources were allocated (by taking free school meals as a proxy for need) short-changed schools in Andover, where unemployment was low, but where there were two wards with high levels of deprivation. In some schools, where there was a culture of mocking "boffs" (Boffins) because they were committed to their studies, this needed to be addressed head on. The problems in some secondary schools, where pupils arrived without the necessary skills, raised important isses for their primary school feeders. More resources might not make a huge difference in the short term, where the problems were of local perception of school quality; but, if properly targetted could, over time, change those perceptions. If schools were to have robust exclusion policies in order to maintain discipline and standards, there needed to be resources outside the school to cope with excluded pupils.
Closing the conference, Cllr David Drew thanked the speakers and said that the conclusions would be distributed to those who had attended and to others.
This was the first event of Stand Up Speak Up in North West Hampshire. It was an opportunity to help shape the policies of the Conservative Party both locally and nationally. Its aim was to inform participants about the current education system, with the help of outside speakers of no party allegiance, and to invite everyone to provide their views on the development of future education policy.