At Easter I finished my stint as the Leicester Mercury’s education correspondent to move to Brussels as a freelance journalist. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable four years covering one of the most interesting education patches in the country.
But it got off to a shaky start.
During my first month in the job a secondary head teacher (now retired) accused me of actively hoping her school’s students failed their GCSEs so that I would have something interesting to write about.
It was so hurtful it stayed with me every single day and made me realise that, at every turn, it was vital to write honestly, explain clearly and become as informed as possible.
During my time in Leicestershire I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderfully committed teachers, local government politicians and officials who genuinely want to make a difference and children and young people who never fail to inspire, impress and motivate: On those days when enthusiasm to pick up a pen or the phone was nowhere to be found, all I needed was to meet some of those people and the spark returned.
The challenges in education remain, as they did when I first started in Leicester in 2006. The main challenge is how to make all schools as good as the best – because there really are some superb examples of excellence in Leicestershire. Yet at the same time, we must remember that different schools serve different areas – journalists must, despite pressure from government and some parents, be wary of comparing schools in favourable situations with those in less well-off (and I don’t just mean financially) areas. But equally schools must not use that as an excuse for failure.
Four years isn’t long enough to know whether the changes that I have seen will be permanent. For all the talk of “sustainable” improvement, there is too much of the temporary in education.
Having lived and breathed education for the past four years in Leicestershire (and two before that in Worcestershire), there are three issues that worry me.
The first is not original. There is too much testing and too much pressure, at an ever younger age, to pass exams. Hard-working teachers in nearly all secondary schools in Leicester and Leicestershire, during evenings, weekends and school holidays, give extra revision sessions and coach pupils through exams. Pupils are grateful, the schools use it to (probably justifiably) demonstrate what a good service they provide. But I wonder what is lost in this never-ending race for the best grades. Similarly, in primary schools, as children as young as three are set targets – where even playtime is regimented, regulated and assessed – I fear we are taking the fun and the flexibility out of growing up.
Secondly, and more controversially I suspect, I grew more astounded by the day at the amount of private business involvement in our education system. From the number of “expert” teachers brought in on hundreds of pounds a day – paid for by taxpayers via local authorities to private education firms – to the companies awarded contracts worth millions of pounds to build, run and provide IT and security in schools and the private consultants who are hired to look for them. While I don’t believe there is anything morally wrong in harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector, I do worry about the accountability and vested interests that very few parents are aware of. How far should private businesses’ raisons-d’etre to make as much profit as possible encroach on the education of our children? At least parents know the names of the organisations that sponsor academies and trust schools. What about the names of the 50 or so involved in education in Leicester and Leicestershire that we never hear about? How many parents know who Serco are, for instance (according to the Guardian, “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of”), and what their involvement in Leicester’s schools are? What about G4S? Does it matter? How has the Co-operative movement become the third-largest non-State provider of education in the country after the Church of England and the Catholic Church? Who voted for that?
Which brings me on to my final point. There is too much lip service paid to democracy. Some local authority officials (thankfully the minority) treat parents with contempt. “Consultations” to close schools are a sham and they bring democracy into disrepute. More needs to be done to encourage parents to play a part in education policy and making them feel that whatever they say or do makes no difference is not the way to do that. Breaking schools away from local authorities to form trusts and academies and allowing parents to set up “free schools” may look like giving power back to parents but I fear could have the reverse effect. Local democracy – for the good of the entire area – must be strengthened not watered down. Personally, I would like to see local management boards, directly elected by the public but free of party political control, to steer education policy in local authority areas.
As I walk from my new home to the European Parliament building every morning I pass a school and it reminds me that, far away from the politics, in the classrooms of Leicester, here in Brussels and around the world, lives are being shaped. That’s what it’s all about.
I’d like to thank everyone who made my job so much easier – by explaining to me issues I did not understand, telling me about things I wasn’t aware of and helping me make covering education in Leicestershire so utterly fascinating.
And I promise, I don’t hope anyone fails their exams this month.
Ps Please keep an eye out on this blog for more writing from Brussels