Jayne Dowle: Lesson number one on Yorkshire Day – listen to headteachers

Justine Greening, from Rotherham, is the new Education Secretary.
Justine Greening, from Rotherham, is the new Education Secretary.
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ON Yorkshire Day, I hope that the new Education Secretary is listening to the concerns of a leading headteacher from this region.

John Tomsett, the head of Huntington School in York, says that education in our region is in crisis and school leaders are “on their own” because the Government has given up worrying about the problems we face. That’s not good to hear, is it?

Justine Greening, the latest incumbent, needs to listen up and take action. She’s from Rotherham, and she’s the first Education Secretary in history to have been educated fully in the comprehensive system, so she is uniquely placed to understand what parents, teachers and pupils are dealing with. I call on her now not to let us down.

The main issue Mr Tomsett brings up is recruitment and retention of quality teaching staff. This is an area which expert after expert and report after report has highlighted, yet no one seems to have come up with a cogent plan to tackle it.

Only two months ago, the Government’s Public Accounts Committee issued a critical report into teacher recruitment. It said that the Department for Education and Skills had missed its targets to fill teacher training places four years running and added it had “no plan for how to achieve them in future”.

Committee chair Meg Hillier commented that the Government “took comfort in national statistics but pays insufficient heed to the fact that teaching happens locally, in individual schools”.

Ms Hillier, too, hits the nail on the head. What is needed to help our children here in Yorkshire is a long, hard look at the specific reasons why excellent teachers are shunning our schools, and also, to examine the challenges which are particular to our region. The key point – which hitherto experts always seem to have missed – is to start by looking outside of the classroom.

Mr Tomsett is right when he says that where he lives and work, in York, there is less of a problem attracting the best calibre of staff. His city is a popular place to live already, offering a good standard of living and many amenities. Compare this – as he does – to inner-city areas of Leeds, Bradford and Hull, and deprived coastal communities, and it is a different picture.

Yet it is schools in areas of deprivation which need top teachers more than most. It’s here where the life chances of children are already threatened by lack of aspiration and positive role models. It’s here where wider social and environmental factors, such as poor health, unstable family relationships and insufficient housing, are most likely to affect youngsters as they grow up. And it’s here where leaving the house for school with breakfast, a pen, pencil and school uniform is sometimes an insurmountable task.

The biggest challenge for the Government, therefore, is not to see education in isolation. There needs to be as much concentration on improving social conditions as there is on developing teacher training to meet the needs of our young people. I realise that this is a big ask, but until those who run the country realise and accept that social conditions play a massive part in how schools operate, teach and recruit staff, no significant progress will be made.

I’d also like those in charge, both at national and local government level, to see schools in the broadest community context possible. We cannot avoid the fact that thousands of children in our region are entering the education system without English as their first language. This both puts them at a disadvantage personally, and immense pressure on their teachers. All efforts must be made to give all children, regardless of their ethnicity, the fairest start possible.

In addition, I wouldn’t like to label any child “unteachable”, but I know what happens in my son’s secondary academy and it would put off any would-be teacher from entering a classroom. Discipline is a massive problem, not just at Jack’s school, but at scores across our region. Too many youngsters misbehave, refuse to listen, interrupt the learning of other pupils, and challenge the teachers.

I know this is a problem which is not peculiar to Yorkshire, but I have to say I can understand why it is so prevalent. We Tykes are naturally upfront and inclined to speak our mind. There is nothing wrong with this, but in a classroom environment, it has to be tempered with self-control.

And I’m afraid that self-control is a quality which cannot be taught. It is only achieved by following a good example, and that example has to come from home.

There are many good parents who want their children to achieve their full potential. Sadly though, there are many more whose own frustrations at the hand which life has dealt them are taken out on their children. These children are ending up out of control. I fear that this lack of respect for the teaching profession is a problem beyond the remit of any Education Secretary. Yet until it is tackled, we will struggle to give our children the education they deserve.