Minister sees local knowledge as key to raise education standards

Education Secretary Justine Greening spent two days fact-finding in Yorkshire. Political Editor James Reed spoke to her during the visit to Scarborough.

Education Secretary Justine Greening at Scarborough UTC

Timed to the minute, and frequently running behind schedule, they propel politicians from venue to venue, shaking hands with a small army of people and listening to hurried cases for why the Government should change this or do that.

As they settle back into their train seat on the way back to Westminster cabinet ministers can have but the vaguest of impressions of the place they have just toured.

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So Education Justine Greening’s visit to Scarborough was significant for the fact it spanned two days as she found out about work underway in its status as one of her first ‘opportunity areas’.

The drive is part of Ms Greening’s desire for local knowledge to play a bigger part in shaping education policy.

“If you come to Scarborough, obviously it is a coastal down an dit faces a very different set of challenges, say, to Doncaster,” she said.

“I grew up very close to Doncaster, a very urban area with its own challenges around deprivation.

“Again that’s very different to say down in Somerset where we have a very rural community where the challenge is how you improve schools by working together - one of the main reasons we’ve seen schools in London get a lot better - which is so much harder.”

After years of criticism that education policy has become dominated by centrally-driven initiatives, opportunity areas has a markedly different tone.

Launched last year, it involves improving standards in schools while also improving careers advice and links with business to give young people better access to work experience and mentoring.

Scarborough was among the first six areas identified for action with Bradford and Doncaster in the second round announced this week.

“What it’s about is saying that we have an overall approach on education across England but actually if we’re really going to make the difference there needs to be some local tailoring of that,” Ms Greening said.

“And we’ll only get that right with and through local communities and local business and local charities and other people who are already involved on the ground.”

What role the new grammar schools Prime Minister Theresa May supports will have in opportunity areas remains to be seen.

The controversy over grammars has dominated Ms Greening’s agenday since the incoming Prime Minister handed her the education brief last year.

But the Education Secretary insists the Government is not focused purely on helping the academically gifted.

“As a Government we are really committed to making sure that we improve technical education and put the standard of techincal education in our country on a par with academic routes. We’ve spent a huge amount of time and focus on really lifting children’s primary and secondary education but what we now need to also do is lift our standards on technical education.

“Though half of our young people do go to university, half don’t and for that half that don’t and frankly just want a different route, that route also needs to be just as good for them as it is for young people heading to our world class universities.”

During her visit, the Education Secretary joined one of her predecessors, Lord Kenneth Baker, to officially open the Scarborough University Technical College, the latest in a growing number of schools offering vocational education to children aged 14 to 19.

Ms Greening argues UTCs and improved connections between schools and business are crucial to showing young people where learning could take them.

“When I was growing up I lived on one side of Rotherham, my grandparents lived on the other side, and in between was this industrial bit of the town where my dad worked and I used to drive past all of the buildings and the factories and wonder what was happening in there.

“I was interested because it was our economy and I think the chance for young people to not just find out more about the world of work and what’s on their own doorstep, but to get a sense of the opportunities for them and why it is relevant to them to do well at school and actually what doing well at school can mean for them in their future lives and really interesting careers they may have had no idea about.

“That’s why these sort of schools and improving education more generally is so important. It is setting young people up in Scarborough to not just fulfill their potential but, actually, if we do well with our broader economic growth, having fantastic opportunities right on their doorstep.