Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Schools and education update - progress in turning around local schools and a Ponteland / Whitfield update

Whilst Northumberland County Council run the schools in the Hexham constituency the key issues that I can help with is school funding, general support to our local schools, and trying to act as  a middle man between the Northumberland County Council and parents. I am not responsible for the education of the children locally, but I have visited every school in the area - which equals over 40+ schools - some many more times than others, and have long campaigned for fairer funding for our schools. This has seen a 6% increase in school funding and this long term problem is slowly changing the way our local schools are funded. School funding has been my focus and thanks to the Fairer Funding Campaign, which is cross party and based upon the long term disparity between Northumberland and other areas we are making a difference.
Parents who I have met and / or have written to me in Northumberland want their children, when they leave first / primary schools, to be able to write neatly and legibly, spell correctly, read confidently, be able to add up, take away, multiply and divide, know all of their times tables by heart, mix well with other children, realise that they in themselves have lots of potential, and have a thirst for knowledge that they can develop in their Middle and High school career. The key point is the best education for the children. 

But we cannot deny that the quality of education provided by the NCC has struggled of late. There are a number of schools in our area that have been struggling, with some in special measures the key examples are Haydon Bridge High School, Haltwhistle, and Whitfield Primary. This does not mean that such schools cannot be turned around - over the last 5 years I have played a small role / been part of the attempts to address the problems at Prudhoe Community High School and Otterburn First School, both of which were temporarily in special measures. But I look today at the new build at Prudhoe High School, which I long campaigned for, and the school assembly I recently addressed there, and I see true change, with an inspirational head and genuinely motivated teaching staff. 

So I am disappointed by the events in Ponteland as there is no doubt that Ponteland Middle School is an outstanding school in many ways. One has to ask at Ponteland if the destruction of 3 tier is the right thing to do? I don't think so,  and have campaigned against the original proposal, as the support group and local councillors know. The consequences of the action of the NCC, if they had gone ahead with the closure, would be to have got rid of one of the best school in the area. And it is one of the best schools on so many levels. This is not a proposal that I support, as I have repeatedly made clear both at the 10 Schools Consultation, in conversation with parents and governors, and on the blog:

Update: Subsequently to the original NCC proposal the Ponteland Middle School was granted academy status, which means that the school will survive long term. I recently met local parents all of whom were supportive of the school on an ongoing basis. 

I recently went to Whitfield, and held a long meeting with John Blackett Ord, who owns the building, many of the governors, some of the parents, and the rest of the support group. We spoke for several hours and subsequently have worked to secure both
- an extension of the consultation period
- and the granting of an academy order.
Both these matters have now been sorted. It remains the case that Whitfield needs to find a suitable partner, and to prove it is making sufficient progress in all the ways that such a school needs which has struggled needs to show. There is no doubting the desire locally to save the school. But the key point is that Whitfield will be open in September 2016. I am helping in whatever way I can, and am in regular contact with the key players. 

In relation to Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle schools I have made it clear I support the turnaround of the schools with outside support. I have met some of the parents, governors and teachers of both schools. I have also met the team behind Bright Tribe who are keen to help. I believe they are a good team and will provide the support to the schools that they have lacked for some time. 
On top of this I have held repeated meetings / conversations with the DFE and the Church of England representatives, where applicable. There is a collective will to try and provide solutions to the complexities of education in rural Northumberland, which has struggled for some time. 

Aside from the schools themselves I have been asked by a number parents about the recent testing of children. The vast majority of schools, parents - and the children - are in favour of testing and have no complaint about the attempts to drive up standards. There is a robust group who oppose the more rigorous testing, and the change that is going with this. It should be understood that KS 1+2 testing has been in place since 1994, and exists fundamentally as a test of the school, not the pupil. Successive governments have agreed this is the right way forward and I do not believe there is any real opposition to this in parliament, on any side of the political fence. 
I do believe that standardised testing of children through the primary and junior years, and the insistence on driving up standards, remains vital. This is especially true when we are struggling academically when compared to our international neighbours.
According to the most recent PISA tests of 15-year-olds in 65 different countries, the UK comes 26th in maths and 23rd in reading. As one commentator has put it – “when the English are worse at English than the Chinese, you know you’re in trouble.
Testing is a vital part of teaching: it is the most accurate way, bar none, that a teacher, school or parent can know whether a pupil has or has not understood vital subject content. What is more, the process of taking a test actually improves pupil knowledge and understanding. As such, testing should be a routine and normalised part of school life. When the time for national curriculum assessments comes around, pupils should be entirely accustomed to the process. 
Many of the reforms that we are addressing now began under the Coalition Liberal / Conservative government from 2010-2015 and are being continued under this Conservative government.  
In 2011, we conducted a review of the primary curriculum to ensure that it was closer to the curriculums being taught in the most successful education systems in the world. The review was overseen by the national curriculum review panel, which was made up of highly experienced headteachers and teachers in this country. We introduced the phonics check to ensure that six-year-olds were learning to read properly, and as a consequence of that reform 120,000 six-year-olds are reading more effectively today. We reviewed the reading curriculum—the English curriculum—to ensure that children became fluent readers who developed a habit of reading for pleasure. We reformed the maths curriculum so that children learn how to perform long multiplication by year 5 and long division by year 6, and so that they know their multiplication tables—up to 12 by 12—by heartby the end of year 4. Our Government are determined to address those issues. We have taken clear action to strengthen the primary curriculum, to ensure that children today are being taught the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy that are vital for their future success. There are some who say that tests are inherently wrong, that we should not test children and that we are creating a regime that is overly stressful. I disagree. One reason why some people regard the assessment this year as challenging is that there are questions in it that previously were not included in the standard test. They were called level 6 tests and were taken separately. We now include those challenging tests within this test so that schools can get credit for the progress of children who start their school with high levels of prior attainment.
There is a legitimate argument / criticism that there was a delay in the release of the writing tests, and problems with a leaked grammar test, and further I accept that the paper is harder, as level 6 questions are included with the level 3-5 questions. But this is a decision done on the back of advice from a lot of education experts, and is done for a reason; put simply, we wish to drive up standards.  Clearly, however, the DFE and the Education Select Committee will look at the process and review it once results come in. Finally I should comment on one key issue that has made the news lately: for my part, I do not believe it is right to take a child out of school, except in exceptional circumstances.  
I would like to finish by making the point, which is oft forgotten, that there are more teachers—450,000—in the profession today than there have been in history. There are over 10,000 more teachers today than there were in 2010, and over 12,000 returners came into the teaching profession last year, which is more than the 11,000 who came in a few years before that.
I fully accept that this is a new process and that there have been teething problems, but I remain utterly supportive of the need to drive up standards, raise expectations and provide children with the skills they are going to need in a very competitive world.  As always if anyone wants to raise any issue with the points that I have attempted to address in an all encompassing blog they should contact me on I have already spoken to dozens of parents, governors and teachers on all these issues over the last 3-4 months.