Not so very long ago the OFSTED hordes descended upon Cumbria, appearing shortly after Michael Gove had made a speech saying many of our schools were failing. Unsurprisingly, OFSTED duly came along and decided that many of our schools were failing. In something that felt more like the Visitations (with many schools being placed in academy status to boot), we were told that for all we were doing, we were not doing enough, or at the very least not doing it well enough.
Fair enough. I’m sure the same is true in every school. And you’ll not find too many teachers or leaders opposed to the idea that we could do better. And in the 18 months or so that have passed since, those schools that came through that wave of inspections have been working hard to do what OFSTED have deemed they should do in order to become more like the kind of schools OFSTED have deemed they should be.
But something grated. And it grates still. Perhaps it was the impression the whole event gave of being politically motivated, with judgments already decided upon before any inspector had so much as purchased their train ticket and made their way to the Glorious North. Perhaps it was the sense that our interrogators knew little of the battle which we fight, and cared less about it either. Or perhaps it was the high-handed hand-wringing, in politics in general, but with OFSTED in particular, heralded as we are with pious appeals to what children deserve, to what we owe to the kids in our schools, to what all parents have a right to demand – as if we rustics were ignorant of such moral imperatives and simply needed educating in the ways of the virtuous.
And of course all of this was, and still is, given the seal of authenticity by the achievements of a certain Mr Wilshaw, he who talked the talk and walked the walk, and other standout examples intended to demonstrate just how achievable transformation is if we could just get better at our jobs and stop failing children with our low expectations. After all, it worked at Mossbourne Community Academy, didn’t it? And Lord knows he’s dined out well on that one.
And yet one thought, time and again, presents itself: could he have done it in Millom? Or Clacton? Or Rhyl?
And do you know, I’m not so sure he could. Or at least, if he did, then he wouldn’t have done it in quite the same way. I’m not arguing that Wilshaw didn’t have a very difficult job in Hackney, or that he did not achieve astonishing success in turning things round – but he also enjoyed some crucial natural advantages, which other places do not have.
As such, packaging this success up as a morality tale simply to be exported to the regions smacks of an ignorance and imperialism which simply assumes that if the natives emulate their betters then we’ll soon be able to fit that square peg into its round hole. Yet the challenges faced are different; this means the solutions must be different too. To claim otherwise is the equivalent of telling Leicester City that all they need to do to win the Premier League next year is copy what Chelsea did, before deducting points from them when they fail to do so – resources, facilities, investment, infrastructure and personnel be damned.
What are these natural advantages? Well, they’re varied and variable. Some places will experience them more acutely than others. And one need hardly point out that of course there are certain advantages enjoyed which London schools do not have. Still, in general terms, there are five key advantages which, one can hope, might inform discussion about the success of London schools, and understanding of why we in the regions might have a different set of challenges to overcome.
Recruitment – apparently all you have to do to improve schools is employ better staff. Which is fine and dandy if you have a large pool to choose from, but more of a problem when recruiting any staff at all is a challenge. There are plenty of schools in many regions that simply do not have the kind of recruitment pools available in the bigger cities, and London in particular with its huge graduate population. Indeed, in many regions there is not much of a graduate population at all, and for a kid to even get a degree they may have to leave the area, meaning recruitment generally relies on inward migration. And since some places struggle a bit on the ‘pull factors’, merrily asserting that they should simply bring in a better calibre of people is less than helpful.
Funding – Yes, I know, funding is calculated according to needs-based criteria to ensure they are robust and fair and yada yada. Well, it’s not working. And so, just as other seemingly fair distribution criteria have been looked at with newly critical eyes (for example in housing allocation) and been found wanting, we need the same for school funding. An example? Look at the map below*:
Now, bear in mind that in 2014/15, eight of the top ten highest funded (per head) authorities were in that Inner London region: Tower Hamlets (£7,014.38), Hackney (£6,680.05), Lambeth (£6,384.03), Hammersmith and Fulham (£6,248.47), Islington (£6,229.3), Camden (£6,205.29), Southwark (£6,123.79), and Greenwich (£6,005.70).
Compare that with, say, Bodmin (£4,396.58), Stockton-on-Tees (£4,486.55), Grimsby (£4,545.73), Barrow (£4,448.63), St Helens (£4,463.14), Rotherham (£4,844.16), and Blackpool (£4,458.91).
Yes, I know, expenses are higher, not least staff costs, though it should also be noted that pay scale differentiation for Inner London is lower in proportion than the extra per head funding London receives. Equally, I know there are explanations such as deprivation indicators, EAL and the like (as I said, I get the funding formulae have a rational methodology), but this does not cost in the boon from these communities either. The point is the current funding system has worked for London, and congratulations are rightly due – but it hasn’t worked for the rest of us.
Resources and facilities – in some places, taking students to the theatre or to a decent museum means time spent on coach or train, with resulting travel costs few departments can afford and many students are unwilling to pay. As such, when they do happen, they tend to be set-piece yearly events, open only to a relatively small number of students, trying to cram as much as possible into a one or two day slot. In other places, however, these kind of opportunities are on the doorstep. For free. Every, single, day. And as it goes with theatres and museums, then so also for galleries, opera and various important national and international cultural events. This is important, in the sense that the milieu in which children are educated is important – simply having the opportunity to sample the finest cultural experiences is a crucial benefit, yet something which many schools struggle to access. If social capital is as important as everybody has recognised it is, then there is a real inequality between the metropolitan hubs and the outlying regions regarding access to the accumulation of it – and this is not irrelevant.
Culture – Tough one to explain this. In the bigger cities, and in particular London, there is a vibrancy and a buzz which permeates the culture of the city. Wherever you are, you’re always just around the corner from the manifestation of a high-achieving, successful, dynamic culture. Seeing people in suits is not unusual; witnessing young people, of all backgrounds and cultures, being successful not at all uncommon. Now I’m not denying there is a cocoon effect into which kids in some areas can be drawn which isolates them from the positive impact of the wider London success story, any more than I am saying that beyond London there is nothing but the dreary and the drab (as a proud Northerner I would contest that vigorously) – but what I am saying that if we want to model success to our kids, to help make them realise what they can achieve, then the big cities, and London in particular, provide ample opportunity for that. There may well indeed be Two Nations in London, with economic inequality meaning that the lives of the successful can be seen as entirely alien to children in London’s toughest schools, but there is nonetheless also a cultural and social vibrancy, a dynamic locale, which is lost to many old industrial towns, still managing the effects of their decline. This impacts on children – their expectations, their normative frames of reference, even their basic access to social variety and difference. And this is the upside of prosperity and living in a city that is thriving.
I should add, as a final disclaimer, that none of this is intended to defend the status-quo, so if any are inclined to use this as an opportunity for a bit of public virtue-signalling then please do so in the knowledge that you are a bore. It is not excuse-making. It is pointing out lived realities in an effort to make people think about how we might address them, in a manner more effective than writing Terribly Earnest Blogposts implying that if only folk cared about kids a little bit more we’d make more progress. Because making progress is what we should all be about. And sometimes it might need something more nuanced, and more imaginative, than simply telling us we should be more like London.