David Skelton: We must stop letting down bright state school pupils

I WENT to school at what Tony Blair once described as a “bog standard comprehensive”. It didn’t break any performance records when I was there. It was described as “a failing school” before being rebranded as a technology college.

Sometimes when politicians talk about comprehensives, they use the language of the anthropologist – they have investigated them, read thoroughly about them and even visited them, but they don’t really understand them.

It’s hard to understand the comprehensive psyche or the comprehensive culture if you haven’t been to one. Nor do you understand the real need for school reform unless you have been to a “bog standard comp” and seen so much unfulfilled potential. My experience of the comprehensive system certainly wasn’t a bad one. Most of the teachers were enthusiastic and committed and most of the pupils were engaged. And the school did have a lot to contend with – the nearby steelworks had only closed five years before I started – meaning that we were all educated against the backdrop of mass unemployment.

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There are plenty of things that I remember when I think back of my time at the school, such as the crumbling prefabs, out of date textbooks and ultra competitiveness about football teams. But the one thing that really strikes me when I look back on my time there was the sheer number of sharp, clever people who attended the school of 500 people and how many of them didn’t fulfil their potential.

The school, despite having many deeply committed teachers didn’t really encourage aspiration. There was nothing in its culture that told us we should be ambitious and consider what our potential could be. Nothing was said to raise horizons and there was, for most people, no mention of university.

When I look around London, I can see people doing well who aren’t nearly as naturally bright or clever as some of the people I went to school with. Seven per cent of people went to fee paying schools but they dominate the professions, while people who have been to comprehensives are massively under represented. The system is letting down people from less privileged backgrounds. And that makes me angry.

My personal experience in a North Eastern comprehensive is the main reason that I’m so passionate about the need for education reform. It means that I get frustrated when people put political dogma ahead of improving outcomes for working class people.

That’s why I’m so supportive of the pupil premium, an idea that we first developed at Policy Exchange in 2008, which diverts money to schools with pupils from poorer backgrounds.

It’s why I support the concept of free schools, which have been so effective at raising the attainment and life chances of poorer students in Sweden and the USA. It’s also why I believe that we shouldn’t be so quick to rule out allowing profit making providers to run schools in the state sector.

People protesting that for-profit companies shouldn’t be involved in running state schools are putting dogma ahead of improving outcomes for working class people. They are ignoring the studies that have shown that for-profit providers in the USA and Sweden have improved educational outcomes in poorer areas. There has been no evidence that profit making has a negative impact.

For-profit companies are already involved in the provision of education for children with special educational needs, as well as nurseries, pupil referral units, school inspections, school improvement programmes and general school support services.

It’s unclear why there is such opposition to private providers being able to run mainstream 4-16 education when they already provide education to some of our most vulnerable children.

We have to accept that there is still strong opposition to private provision of schools as well as a lack of political will. There need not be a binary choice between for-profit and not-for-profit schools, though. At Policy Exchange, we’re advocating the creation of “social enterprise schools”, owned and run by teachers on a ‘John Lewis’ model, where 50 per cent of any school surplus would have to be reinvested in the school. These schools should be concentrated in areas of the highest deprivation, with the greatest need for educational improvement.

When considering reforms to the education system, we should ask ourselves whether the reform will improve the education and life chances of people in deprived areas.

It’s time for the system to stop letting down people like those bright, intelligent people I went to a comprehensive school with.

We mustn’t let dogma, of either the left or the right, get in the way of improving education for people from working class communities.