Jayne Dowle: Peer pressure is holding back young people

BY this time next week, most pupils will be back at school. For some it will be the start of the most important year of their lives. Thousands of youngsters will be about to commence their GCSEs. My son still has a year’s grace. Or so he thinks. He’s going into Year Nine. I keep trying to convince him that this is a vital year of preparation. Jack has no more chances to rehearse. No more excuses about not learning his times tables. And now, he’s got another warning ringing in his ears.

Northerners must try harder at school, we’re told. Although our results in Yorkshire are amongst the most improved in the country, we still have the lowest number of pupils achieving those coveted A to C grades at GCSE level. The proportion of entries achieving at least a C grade this year was 65.3 per cent, compared to an impressive 72 per cent in London. If anything will make the north/south divide even worse, it’s our young people leaving school with a disadvantage before they even go to college or start work.

It is abundantly clear that our schools must do better. Our region has posted the lowest rate of A to C grades for at least the past five years. A slight improvement of less than half a per cent is nothing to break open the champagne for. There have been more excuses for this than Jack has for not learning his times tables. It’s time we faced a few home truths.

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Just why are our pupils not achieving as well as they should? It’s tempting to blame economic poverty, but this is not borne out by anecdotal evidence.

Straitened financial circumstances and family worklessness may have some effect on the potential of young people to achieve. However, if the congratulations messages from proud parents on my Facebook feed are anything to go by, a comfortable background is by no means a pre-requisite for success at this level. And London, in comparison, has some of the highest indicators of social deprivation in the UK.

When I lived there a decade or so ago, even at baby clinic, parents would angst about the terrible state of state education. Since then, there has been a serious crackdown on bad teaching, ill-discipline and educational standards and this is paying off. There has also been a range of financial incentives to attract individuals to teaching in inner city schools. And despite the high cost of living in the metropolis, such investment does seem to be paying off.

It’s a different story in parts of the North, though. In our region, earlier this year, an industry poll of headteachers found that the shortage of teachers in our schools is at “crisis point”. I know from talking to Jack that the gaps in teaching provision and the endless parade of supply teachers does nothing to improve continuity – or concentration. I’d support any move to improve efforts to recruit excellent teachers to our schools. Superlative teaching staff are the backbone of any school. And who wouldn’t want to come and teach in Yorkshire? We’ve got relatively affordable housing, stunning countryside and a friendly welcome.

However, it is no good blaming the teachers – or the lack of them. I’d say that there are two major reasons for our children not achieving – too much peer pressure and not enough pressure from parents. For far too long now a culture of “never mind, it doesn’t really matter” has been allowed to flourish. Those who do work hard are labelled as “geeky” or worse. It’s a vestige of our robust industrial past we’re finding hard to shake off. And this culture gives rise to the record number of young people who end up retaking the most basic of qualifications.

While it is admirable that they are prepared to knuckle down and get on with it at 17 or 18, surely it would make more sense if they would concentrate at school and pass their exams when they are supposed to?

Talk to any secondary school teacher and they will tell you that getting this message across to your average 14-year-old is one of the biggest challenges in the classroom. We are not usually backwards at coming forwards in Yorkshire, but we lack confidence sometimes. We need more made of the role models who have achieved well at GCSEs – at the simplest level, these youngsters could be asked to revisit their former schools and inspire the pupils coming up behind them.

If Jack eventually does pass a decent amount of exams, I’ll take him myself to talk to the recalcitrant Year Nines. Yes, this is where we, the parents, come in. I try to encourage my son in a constructive way. I remind him that although GCSE exams are a chore, they are a passport to his future.

I’m not expecting miracles, just five decent grades if possible. I try to be practical and pragmatic, good Yorkshire qualities. For the sake of our children – and for our region – let’s all vow to do the same, and show the country what we’re really made of.