It’s all change at the start of the new academic year. My daughter, Lizzie, enters year eight at her academy secondary school and her brother starts a two-year course in creative media production at college.
My children could not be more different. Lizzie is a natural learner, while Jack has taken a long time to find his niche. I’m used to juggling different abilities, approaches and priorities, but this year I will be learning new things myself.
In the face of better-than-expected GCSE results in August, the call from Ofsted to judge schools on how well they deliver a rounded education and growing demands to address discrepancies between GCSEs and A-levels, I hope that ministers and school leaders are prepared to learn a few things too.
For a start, the latest Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, needs to get his head around the new GCSE grading system. He didn’t exactly demonstrate a clear understanding when challenged to explain what 9 to 1 meant in a recent interview. I hope he’s spent the last weeks of his summer holidays swotting up.
However, I’d say that the priority should be to ensure that state-sector schools support every child, regardless of ability and social background. In our region in particular, this has never been more vital. We’ve seen the impressive results that extra funding for failing London schools has delivered. If the Northern Powerhouse is to become more than an ideal, we need similar investment here.
Connected to this is the grammar schools issue. I’m trusting that Theresa May now has rather more immediate Brexit-related concerns to deal with and won’t be causing confusion by reigniting the selective education debate. I’d hope that the overall rise in students gaining a pass – that’s a 4 or above for the benefit of Mr Gibb – would be enough to convince her that there are countless non-selective schools pushing their pupils hard without the benefit of the divisive eleven-plus.
More interesting are the views of Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who is keen to instigate a more rounded view of judging the performance of primary and secondary schools. SATs and GCSE league tables should not be the only measure of success, she says. This is certainly a volte-face, but if she is to follow it through, she must come up with a credible alternative measurement.
We parents – and teachers – have become reliant on statistics, whether we like it or not. And so have estate agents, who know that houses for sale in certain catchment areas may attract a local premium of thousands of pounds.
It would be nice if resources could be targeted towards schools with high levels of challenging circumstances in order to create a more level playing field. Some of the most (officially) outstanding schools are in areas of high deprivation; education experts should be encouraged to further identify these and help deliver their practices across the board.
Which brings me to the academy versus local authority control issue. I say this as parent who made the conscious decision to send her son to an academy because it was a smaller and more supportive school. And I was so satisfied with the progress he made, I sent his sister to follow him.
I can speak only from personal experience, but I do lose patience with the political aspects. Most parents, the ones who don’t shout loudly and wage social media campaigns, just want to know that their children are being educated well and are happy in school.
The salaries of headteachers and academy bosses and the egos and attitudes of local politicians are of minimal concern to these parents, to be honest.
This doesn’t mean they lack aspiration; far from it. In the decade or so my children have been at school I’ve noticed a sea change in parental attitudes in my town of Barnsley, at least. There is a new respect for education, especially in ordinary families. The most pleasing thing about GCSE results day for me was the joy of parents whose children had achieved passes as impressive as any students, anywhere in the country.
For too long now, areas such as South Yorkshire have been written off. Our children, able as any, haven’t been instilled with the kind of confidence they need to take study seriously and make informed choices about their future careers.
If they did show promise, their horizons were all too often stunted. I’ve had more than one argument over the years with local headteachers who shun open days at Russell Group universities and Oxbridge colleges because they fear their pupils “won’t fit in”.
Well my friend’s 18-year-old son has just smashed his A-levels and he’s off to Durham University to study biology. She’s a single working mother, in Barnsley, so their story proves that anything is possible. This academic year, above all, ministers should equip all our children to follow their dreams, and give them, their parents, teachers and supporters, the credit they deserve.