The news that two local schools, Court Fields Secondary and Wellesley Park Primary, have both been judged by Ofsted inspectors as failing their pupils has generated an understandably strong reaction around the town. Few local residents are immune from the consequences – from parents of youngsters approaching school age to those with school-age children and on to local employers. When schools at the heart of the community fail to deliver the skills, knowledge and values on which we all depend, if not now then in the future, we are all affected in some way.
We can ask ‘How has this happened?’ Is this failure the result of specific events, for example, a poorly timed inspection visit or experienced teachers leaving the schools? Can we blame social factors for a lack of respect for education and those whose job it is to deliver it? Can we blame parents for failing to encourage their children to make full use of 13 years of free education which is the envy of many countries around the globe?
Can we point the finger at parents who choose to opt out of the state system and buy an education for their children, or move to live in a ‘good’ school’s catchment area? Or those who do not regard education as advantageous and by doing so, foster in their children a lack of respect for teachers and schools? Can we blame the government for not putting more money into education, for classes being too large, for buildings crumbling, for a stuttering economy that doesn’t deliver the promise of jobs for school leavers? Can we blame teachers for failing to deliver lessons that encourage pupils to learn and be genuinely interested in learning more?
Whatever we see as the predominant factor in the issue, the outcome is clear: children in this small town at both primary and secondary level are being educationally disadvantaged. They are failing to learn at the same pace as their peers in thriving schools and their immediate and longer term prospects are damaged accordingly. And teachers, school governors, parents, grandparents, society – even pupils themselves – must face up to the problem if it is to be overcome.
Where do we begin? Arguably, by doing something ourselves and not waiting for someone else, somewhere else to take action. This means parents sending their children to school with positive attitudes, encouraging them to take advantage of education and its possibilities. This is the foundation of ‘good’ schools, where parents take an active interest in what is happening inside the school gate. It means Headteachers taking action. Schools need resourceful, energetic, dynamic individuals who care deeply about learning – and children – and who provide encouragement and opportunity.
They set standards for both staff and pupils and ensure that they are met – and take immediate action when they are not rather than look for excuses. It means teachers looking hard at themselves, their own practices and learning strategies, the way they encourage learning and motivate pupils to be active learners. It means governors knowing a great deal more about how schools work and what is needed to make them thrive. Pupils in classrooms should look at themselves too. Do they communicate disaffection, disregard, tolerance of disruption in the classroom – or do they set higher standards for one another?
Inadequate schools can be turned around. They can become successful and a source of pride in the community so all is not lost – yet. If a cohort of young people in the town is to avoid entering adulthood under-educated, under-equipped to play an active part in society, resentful, alienated – and if the cycle is not to be repeated when they themselves become parents – action is urgently needed, from us all. It is a collective responsibility.
Gill is a former Head of English and a Deputy Head who has worked in both state and independent schools