Education is the most powerful force in the world. It can solve all our greatest problems: poverty, discrimination, cynicism, despair.
Education is vital for everyone, but it is those at the very bottom who need it the most. Those without wealth, connections or privilege. Those from broken homes or devastated countries.
Education is how the down-trodden can achieve a better future.
This must be the guiding principle behind all education policy-making.
I recently became Lead Councillor for Children & Family in Brent. Days into the job I was faced with an extremely difficult situation.
Copland School in Wembley is a deeply troubled secondary school. This spring it was placed in special measures after a third disappointing Ofsted inspection in four years. Legislation gives the Education Secretary the power to force a school in special measures to become an Academy – a power which the current Secretary, Michael Gove, is using with great relish.
I dislike the Academy system. There is no evidence that Academisation leads to improved educational outcomes. Academies fragment educational provision – when it should be based on local co-operation. And worst of all, Academisation is a step towards marketisation of education.
I was extremely disappointed when the overwhelming majority of secondary schools in Brent volunteered to convert to Academy status, in response to a short term Government funding bribe.
But Copland is different. Copland is a school which has failed its pupils.
Less than half the pupils at Copland get 5 A*-C grades at GCSE – well below the Brent and national averages. Four other Wembley secondaries all score over 60%.
This is just not good enough.
Some plead mitigating circumstances. Thanks to the Government’s brutal cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme to fund their Free School experiment, the physical infrastructure at Copland is creaking. This is a big problem. But just down the road, the equally crumbling Alperton Community School has gained Outstanding status from Ofsted.
Copland’s fundamental problem is not its buildings.
Similarly, a financial scandal at Copland caused distraction, embarrassment and financial difficulty. But the repeated Ofsted reports are not financial audits, they are condemnations of unacceptably poor teaching and learning.
The standout fact from Copland’s latest Ofsted report is that fully two-thirds of the teaching seen during the inspection was either inadequate or requires improvement.
Copland’s fundamental problem is not financial: it is the standard of teaching.
Since Copland started encountering serious problems several years ago, a range of interventions have been tried. An Interim Executive Board was appointed to bring rigour to the school improvement process; a new Head was selected; a new Governing Body was appointed and a Head from a successful local school was brought in to provide support.
None of these interventions made significant difference: in fact the recent Ofsted reports show a school going backwards.
At the same time, ruthless Government cuts have slashed the capacity of the Council to revitalise schools facing such deep problems.
I am no fan of Academies, but the status quo is simply unacceptable. It is failing local children. Against this record of failure, I made the decision that only a radical new beginning could turn this school around.
An Academy conversion is the only credible step.
This was an unpopular decision with the Teaching Unions who called a strike last week. Astonishingly they chose to strike on a day when nervous teenagers were due to sit their GCSEs and A-Levels.
This action really crystallised the debate for me.
Education is about giving children the tools they need to build better lives for themselves. It is a sad fact that achievement in this country remains closely tied to results at GCSE and A-Level. Intentionally disrupting schools on exam days will not inconvenience Michael Gove in the slightest – but it seriously risks jeopardising the future of children.
We must keep a clear sense of priorities in education: the needs of children must come first, second and third.
I am sceptical of the power of Academies. But the status quo is utterly unacceptable at Copland. We cannot settle for a system where only 40% of children gain 5 A*-Cs at GCSE.
This is not just pragmatism, this is about fundamental values.
More than a quarter of children at Copland receive Free School Meals. A fifth of the pupils come from the most deprived ward in Brent. 10% of pupils have refugee status. 23 pupils are Looked After Children. Over 40% of pupils are from Black African or Black Caribbean families and fully 90% are from BME groups.
This is a roll-call of the children that most need a good education: the poorest, the most unsettled and the most discriminated against.
Yet in direct contrast, Copland’s latest Ofsted report found that Copland pupils from Black Caribbean and Black African families make significantly less progress than the national figures for these same communities. The needs of Copland pupils who speak English as an additional language “are not catered for in lessons.” And disabled pupils and pupils with special educational needs make insufficient progress at Copland.
Copland is a school which recruits from the most disadvantaged communities. And the more disadvantaged you are, the worse an education you receive there.
Enough is enough. Copland is full of kids who desperately need a high quality education to lift them out of the poverty they have been born into and the discrimination they will have to fight against.
We can argue forever about structures and governance – but fundamentally this is about values.
The most important value of all is that education is about transforming young lives. We are pursuing an Academy conversion because the kids at Copland need and deserve better.