Tom Bewick: Let’s make sure every young person achieves success

Councillor Tom Bewick, Labour and Co-operative councillor for Westbourne, is chair of Brighton and Hove City Council?s children, young people, and skills committee
Councillor Tom Bewick, Labour and Co-operative councillor for Westbourne, is chair of Brighton and Hove City Council?s children, young people, and skills committee

Thousands of young people across the city celebrated achieving their GCSE results.

Thousands of young people across the city celebrated achieving their GCSE results last week. Overall, the local results confirmed continued improvement in the number of pupils obtaining top grades, including English and mathematics A*-C, against a broadly static picture nationally.

Overall, 65.3% of students at Cardinal Newman Catholic School achieved five or more good GCSEs ? compared with only 34.6%, of disadvantaged students

Overall, 65.3% of students at Cardinal Newman Catholic School achieved five or more good GCSEs ? compared with only 34.6%, of disadvantaged students

To be clear, these results –- significantly above the national rates in most of the city’s schools - can be put down to the brilliant hard work of individual pupils, teachers, schools, and committed parents, who have once gain done our city proud. Currently, there are no council-maintained schools in special measures. All primary and secondary schools, as inspected by Ofsted, the independent watchdog, are rated in one of three acceptable categories; 84% of schools are "good" or "outstanding", meaning that most parents have the choice of an excellent local school. The recent exam results underline this improvement journey and show that the council’s model of school partnership can deliver real success. The notable improvement in mathematics is testament to how well this model is working.

Collaboration extends to all of our schools: council-maintained and academies. It’s unfortunate in a way that the prime minister chose to wade into the debate recently, denouncing local authority oversight of schools as “bureaucrats” getting in the way of local improvement and innovation. David Cameron forgets to mention that his entire education policy is run by a phalanx of bureaucrats based in Whitehall, divorced from local circumstance or accountability. That is not how things work in Brighton and Hove, where positive local democratic leadership - which is evident from all the main political parties - is a force for good in the city.

Since taking over as chair of the council’s committee responsible for schools, it has come as a welcome surprise just how much collegiate working goes on behind the scenes. There are cross-party groups on school admissions, for example, and my committee has recently agreed a set of priorities that suggests a political consensus is emerging of the need to be more ambitious for our young people - including both challenging and supporting our schools to promote higher quality vocational and apprenticeship options. We need to break down the academic-vocational divide, which has become far too entrenched.

There are big differences about the shape of education policy nationally. But locally our focus has been on doing what is best for pupils and parents. That’s why the new Labour-led administration will continue to support the secondary "free-school" application made by Brighton University. A decision by the secretary of state is expected in the autumn.

Overall, 72.8% of students at Dorothy Stringer School achieved five or more good GCSEs ? compared with only 45.2%, of disadvantaged students

Overall, 72.8% of students at Dorothy Stringer School achieved five or more good GCSEs ? compared with only 45.2%, of disadvantaged students

There is one worrying trend behind these results, which commentators have hardly picked up on.

We should not forget about those who did not achieve the national benchmark of "five good GCSEs" or those that achieved good results in more vocational subjects.

The stark fact is that after decades of education reforms, our secondary system is failing to raise and reward the talents of all our young people. In some schools, more than half our children are still leaving school unprepared for adult life. All the international surveys tell us that we simply cannot afford to waste homegrown talent in such a fiercely-competitive age.

Of course, there is more to life and success than passing exams.

Some of the country’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, artists, and business leaders dropped out of school to achieve lifetime and career success. I left school in the late 1980s, initially, with just one O-level, before becoming the first person in my household to go to university via night school. We should be investing in - not cutting - adult education, while continuing to build on the now-decade-old renaissance in apprenticeships, providing better routes to skilled work and well-paid jobs locally.

We need our education community, including the local business community, to join forces with the council to reverse the tide of a growing attainment gap for disadvantaged students in the city.

The results this time round showed that these pupils are trailing well behind their peers. For example, let’s take a closer look at the exam performance of three of the city’s top-performing secondary schools: Blatchington Mill School and Sixth Form College, Cardinal Newman Catholic School, and Dorothy Stringer School.

These schools achieved five good GCSEs for 69.3%, 65.3%, and 72.8% of their pupils, respectively – well above the national average.

When, however, you look at the performance of students taught at these same schools in receipt of pupil-premium funding - additional resources earmarked by government for disadvantaged students - the corresponding figures for five good GCSEs declines dramatically to 50.7%, 34.6%, and 45.2%, respectively.

Not only are these results well below the national benchmark for all pupils taking GCSEs, what should be of concern to the whole community is the wide variation between these schools.

Why are examination outcomes achieved specifically for pupil-premium learners so low and so varied?

Blatchington Mill is the only school that ensured at least half its most disadvantaged pupils achieved the national standard of five A*-C GCSEs, including English and mathematics.

The picture is similar across the city where, overall, the attainment gap has increased by four percentage points compared with last year - albeit with an improvement of two percentage points in mathematics.

Is this the flip side of a state education system that appears to be doing increasingly well - able to stretch those achieving top academic grades - whereas, for disadvantaged pupils, it appears that they are falling still further behind?

I believe this warrants further investigation. I will ask council officials to place a full report before my committee and the Fairness Commission in October.

It also raises some fundamental questions about the efficacy of pupil-premium funding, how it is implemented in the city, and whether our schools are currently doing enough to close the attainment and disadvantage gaps.

After all, if our schools receive more resources per pupil to address the additional challenges of more disadvantaged students, then we might expect to see this approach reflected in much better exam results for this group.

Instead, we see a widening gap. We must close the gap and make sure that no young person is left behind by the rising tide of exam success.

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 08.50.02Councillor Tom Bewick, Labour and Co-operative councillor for Westbourne, is chair of Brighton and Hove City Council’s children, young people, and skills committee. Email: tom.bewick@brighton-hove.gov.uk.