YP Comment: The skills test which Theresa May must pass

Theresa May has caused a furore by paving the way for new grammar schools.
Theresa May has caused a furore by paving the way for new grammar schools.
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DAVID CAMERON started out with the best of intentions when he chose the rebalancing of the economy to be the first major policy speech of his premiership – he even came to Shipley to make his case.

It’s the same with Theresa May who made education the central subject of her first setpiece speech on domestic matters since succeeding Mr Cameron. She was right to do so – skills, as The Yorkshire Post has argued previously, underpin Britain’s future prosperity and will become even more critical as the country prepares for Brexit.

To her credit, the new Prime Minister recognises this and accepts that the wider provision of world-class education – particularly in run-down urban areas blighted by social policy failure and a rotten culture of under-achievement – is the most effective means of improving social mobility.

And although Mrs May acknowledged the advent of academies and free schools which operate outside the auspices of LEAs, she recognises that many pupils have still to benefit from these changes. “There are still 1.25 million attending primary and secondary schools in England which are rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement or inadequate. If schools across the North and Midlands had the same average standards as those in the South, nearly 200,000 more children would be attending good schools,” she admitted.

The challenge is making sure that this debate focuses on issues like the quality of teachers rather than a polarising argument about grammar schools. This goes to the heart of Yorkshire’s future. There is a chronic shortage of innovative and inspirational teachers, not least because so many classroom leaders are leaving the profession prematurely. Understandably, those that remain do not particularly want to work in those schools with below-average results because failure to hit arbitrary targets, which take no account of the time-consuming difficulties which arise from the pupils with the greatest learning and behavioural needs, will reflect badly on their careers. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of lost opportunities.

Yet, even if Mrs May wins the looming Parliamentary battle over grammar schools, and her insistence that they must accept a quota of children from poorer backgrounds, the numbers to benefit will be very small.

What she should be doing is listening to Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who says London has become “a standout performer” without new grammar schools because of a concerted effort to drive up standards and pump money into those areas with the greatest challenges. This approach, one which sees top-performing schools collaborate with others, has worked. Once the city had some of the worst results in the country. Now its exam grades are amongst the very best and this model needs to be followed in Yorkshire where results still lag behind the rest of Britain.

If this state of affairs changes by the end of Mrs May’s premiership, this speech and strategy will have been a success. If not, it will come to be regarded as a missed opportunity – and the potential of another generation lost to the country. The stakes are that high.

Police in the dock

THERE will be many people who sympathise with West Yorkshire Police when the force says it does not have sufficient officers to investigate day-to-day crimes because of the complexity of more time-consuming cases. There will be others, however, who will say that the constabulary’s claim of poverty is unproven and that the significant slump in public satisfaction, from 87.6 to 82.5 per cent in the past year, stems from a leadership vacuum because of chief constable Mark Gilmore’s long-running suspension saga and the inability of managers to provide a 101 non-emergency telephone service which is fit for purpose.

Though policing has changed due to the proliferation of computer crime, the relationship between local forces – like West Yorkshire – and the law-abiding public is paramount. If the police do not attend burglaries because it is easier to issue a crime number over the phone, why should they expect households to call them if they witness a suspicious act? Victims matter. They also have rights, as Tony Blair made clear nearly 20 years ago when he first promised to put their rights at the heart of the criminal justice system. If they’re burgled or mugged, it should be taken seriously by officers. If the police can be seen to responding to criminal acts, this visible presence will deter law-breakers.

Mark Burns-Williamson, the county’s crime commissioner, is correct – “falling victim satisfaction” must not go “unchecked” and that it is up to police chiefs to rectify this. The greater concern is that the public’s elected representative has only just realised the scale of the public’s grievances.