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Graham's latest Journal Column
Last week the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ issue in Birmingham managed to dominate the education agenda, leading to predicable calls from some politicians for the Government to change its strategy. To allow what is no more than a handful of schools to determine the overall policy of the Government would be grossly disproportionate, and in my view, the direction of travel is broadly correct. The Government likes to portray its policy as radical but for the most part it is a continuation of the policy pursued by the last government; it has turbo-charged the school academy programme, added additional ways of direct funding schools, and introduced a pupil premium to ensure extra resources are deployed to schools in areas of social need.
The IoD might not agree with everything the Government says (it notably disagrees with HS2) but on education policy we feel that this is an issue in which business has a direct and relevant stake. We know that a quarter of a million students have rolled off the educational conveyor belt every year without the employer-recognised minimum grades in English and Maths, and we know that businesses value these two subjects above all others.
Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors, has said: “Michael Gove’s reforms to our education system are among the most important work being undertaken by this Government, and they should not be overshadowed by political bickering.”
Giving schools the freedom to open longer and empowering them to take a tougher approach to disruptive pupils are important elements of a meaningful, long-term reform agenda. Any successful organisation, in the public or private sector, needs to be able to respond flexibly and creatively to demand, whether from parents, pupils or employers.
In the North East, the Academy programme is moving full-steam ahead. Academies have earned autonomy with top performance. In some towns, such as Darlington, every secondary school is an Academy. Some are even partnering with poorer performing schools to share expertise and help improve the standards of their neighbours. Very often these neighbouring schools are the feeder primary schools to the academies so standards are improving throughout even more of a child’s school career. The very best academies are also becoming ‘teaching schools’, in the way top hospitals becoming teaching hospitals.
There are comparatively fewer ‘Free Schools’ in the North East but there are innovative schools. The new Studio West School in Newcastle, which has the support of the City Council, is likely to become one of our educational gems. It will use project-based learning to teach its pupils and has already attracted substantial interest from parents for its opening in September (I’m told there are a few sixth-form places left).
At post-16 level, business gets really interested in education. My own firm has recently signed up to the Creative North campaign to persuade more young people to seek apprenticeships in creative industries in the North East rather than emigrate to London, Leeds or Manchester. The skills requirements in engineering are becoming very acute, and are one of the constraints hampering the growth of some manufacturing enterprises. Indeed, when I polled IoD members in the North East, ‘skills shortage’ was one of the top three concerns.
Of course when you see education debated on TV & radio, the first voices you will hear will be the vocal and increasingly political teaching unions. They are very resistant to change, but when you dig deep the issues they are most concerned about understandably relate to terms and conditions for teachers. The rights and wrongs of teachers’ pension arrangements, pay and hours are not for this column. The teachers have a pay review body which assesses pay independently; they also have the right to strike, which is used too often in my view. But, just like the issue of ‘Trojan-horse’ schools, teaching union concerns over contracts should not be allowed to stand in the way of strategic change to the way education is organised in England. Our collective goal should be to make sure every child is educated to the highest standards.
Today’s generation of schoolchildren will be looking for jobs in a competitive and unforgiving global race. Countries with an unrelenting focus on the quality and rigour of their education system will be the ones who win that race. Unleashing choice and flexibility throughout the state education system can only be a positive move as we equip our young people for a competitive world.