Jonathan Gullis: Levelling up must mean more free schools in places like Stoke

25 Jun

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.

The last 18 months have put unimaginable strain on our schools. Taking children out of school and reducing lesson plans to laptops has disproportionately undermined the education of the most disadvantaged in society. There is rightly a focus on getting school back to where they were before the pandemic. But in my experience as a former teacher and member of the Education Select Committee this will be nowhere near enough.

Levelling up has come to mean a wealth of different things, but ultimately it comes down to improving opportunity. We all have talent. We can all work hard and have high aspirations. But tragically, our opportunity to make the most of that talent or aptitude is not distributed evenly around the country. And there is no part of society where this is more true, and more important, than in our schools system – as an important report from the thinktank Onward and the charity the New Schools Network sets out today.

To give an example, Progress 8 scores in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent are ranked the seventh lowest in the country. Of the fifteen mainstream secondary schools in the area, only one is rated Outstanding by Ofsted, but five are rated Requires Improvement. That means for families in my constituency, an area rich in ambition but poor in educational opportunity, children are falling behind their peers around the rest of the country. This isn’t their fault. And my constituents rightly expect the Government to do something about it.

Over the past decade, Conservative reforms to the education sector have transformed outcomes for young people across all regions. Free schools are the highest performing types of state school, and are more likely to be rated Outstanding. Academy trusts are leading the way on collaboration and improvement. New teachers are getting a good starting salary of £30,000. But too many areas remain untouched by the positives, and sweeping interventions, like the Opportunity Areas programme, fail to capture many of those areas languishing in a state of perpetual stagnation. This is evidenced by the fact that places like Knowsley, Hartlepool and Middlesborough sat in the bottom decile for GCSE attainment in 1998 and remain their today – try telling a parent in one of these towns that education has improved.

There are other issues too. In my constituency, talented kids can’t easily travel to attend a better secondary school nearby, with the neighbouring local authorities of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stafford and Staffordshire Moorlands only having one Outstanding secondary school between them. As a means of contrast, there are eight Outstanding secondary schools in Westminster and 16 more in neighbouring Camden, Kensington and Chelsea, and Southwark.

This pattern is replicated across the country. In places like Doncaster, Blackpool, Scarborough and Fenlands, parental choice over which schools their children attend is stifled, almost meaningless, because so few options are rated Good or Outstanding. In many cases, schools have been underperforming for years, stuck in a pernicious cycle that attracts fewer good teachers, undermines long term governance, and sustains a culture of low aspiration.

This week the Education Select Committee, which I sit on, highlighted how one group in particular is affected by weak education: White working class kids. The figures are shocking. Just 17.7 per cent of White British children eligible for free school meals achieve a Grade 5 (akin to a Grade C in the old system) or above in English and maths at GCSE, versus 22.5 per cent amongst all pupils in receipt of free meals. As the report set out, White British pupils underperform at every stage of the school journey.

At least part of this story is likely to be about geography as well as cultural background. Many of the places which have the weakest schools in terms of quality are also places with disproportionate White British populations. While many of the places with the best schools according to Ofsted are in ethnically diverse, inner city areas, especially London.

That’s why we need to level up education. To give normal families in areas so often overlooked a real chance to make the most of their talents and achieve their potential, no matter where they go to school. That means a long-term, radical plan for school reform as set out in this report. Not accepting underperformance, using proven and experienced academy trusts as a vehicle for change, opening more free schools where they are needed, backing great teachers who can make the difference.

The education sector faces multiple challenges ahead as we recover from the pandemic. We can either grasp the moment to deliver lasting change, fixing multi-generational disadvantage, or let it slip and have this conversation again in five years time. I believe we must choose the former. Anything less is not only a disservice to children in Stoke-on-Trent, Knowsley, Doncaster, Derbyshire and elsewhere, but a guarantee that our efforts to level up will only go so far.

Jonathan Gullis: How the curriculum should be broadened during the early years of secondary education

2 May

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.

Coronavirus has tested our education system as never before. The glue that binds it all together – the teachers – have risen to the challenge selflessly, and shown their worth time and time again. Their determination to keep our children learning, despite all the difficulties posed by social distancing, is hugely commendable, and many families around the country owe them a great deal of gratitude.

Our school system itself, however, has been exposed as being flawed in many ways. Given that the pandemic has been a systemic crisis across society, we shouldn’t be too surprised that schools have struggled to cope. But just as other areas of society are examining how they might adjust in the post-Covid world, education must also reform.

For me, there is no more important candidate for reform than Years Seven, Eight and Nine – otherwise known as Key Stage 3: the early years of seconday education. These years are a core stage in our children’s development that I think we need to reshape, so they properly prepare children for later education and life in the outside world.

I am a great fan of the Schools Minister Nick Gibb and the great work he has done since 2010 to drive up standards in schools. The number of schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted has risen by 20 per cent, from 66 per cent in 2010 to 86 per cent in 2020, benefitting almost two million children. Central to this success has been a focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. I want to see this focus remain.

The core of this new Key Stage 3 would be the EBacc subjects. English, Maths and Science would each get four hours of teaching time each per week, with the humanities – History, R.E and Geography – and foreign languages to have two hours each per week. P.E. and the new R.S.E. would each have one hour dedicated to them each week.

But at Key Stage 3, I also think we should introduce the practical skills that will set up our children for life beyond the classroom.

To take a few examples: I feel it is very important that people are familiar with basic accounting, budgeting and financial concepts, as these will have a huge impact throughout their lives. These kinds of practical applications could be incorporated into a revised Maths curriculum and used to demonstrate the real world value that Maths has.

At a time when we are all so focused on our health and the health of the nation, another example springs to mind. Instilling in children a good understanding of diet, cookery and food science, all of which could be taught as part of a revised Science curriculum, would set them up well for taking care of themselves as adults. The importance of this kind of practical understanding has been highlighted by the pandemic, with the strong link between weight and how vulnerable people are to serious disease.

To ensure that at this stage children are studying a broad, truly modern curriculum and keeping their options open, in addition to the core subjects.

I would also have two other aspects to the curriculum – STEM and Creative. STEM – which would be formed of subjects such as Engineering and Computer Science – would give pupils a grounding in the kind of skills and knowledge that are more and more in demand, and help prepare them for the modern world. Pupils would dedicate two hours per week to studying these STEM subjects.

Creative – which would encompass Art, Drama and Music – would also have two hours of teaching time per week. Offering these two subject groups as mandatory would recognise the importance that both STEM and the creative sector plays in the UK economy, and open pupils’ eyes to the many potential careers they offer.

Beyond updating the curriculum so it properly prepares our children for the jobs of the future, I also want to see Key Stage 3 change so that, in the spring term of Year 9, every child has to take a formal, Level 1 exam. This would ensure no child leaves school without some qualification, which can have a hugely detrimental impact on people’s lives.

Holding the exam during Spring would allow time for pupils to receive careers advice to help inform their GCSE choices next year. As it stands, children are required to narrow down their options based on little to no understanding of what they may mean in years to come. I think it would be very valuable to get LEPs, Chambers of Commerce and local employers into schools at this stage to discuss with children the various options out there

Such engagement would allow for decisions of future studies to be made in the summer on an informed basis. It would also help open eyes about just how many attractive careers choices there are. In this country we have become snooty about the importance of getting a degree and going into some form of academically focused career. In reality, these types of careers are not the answer for all young people, and we need to dispel the myth that they are.

The pandemic has tested us all, perhaps none more so than schools and children. But out of difficulty comes opportunity. If the pandemic prompts us to examine how our schools operate and leads to positive reforms, something good will have come from this most exceptional of years.