Wonky-Shop-Finalby Peter Cobrin

I want to talk about accountability

and I want to talk about democracy and I want to start at a school near you. All state schools are local schools. They exist in our community; they draw in leaders, teachers, ancillary staff and young people from our community. Many of those young people will seek their first career steps within a few miles of the school – still within our community. This makes the local school our most important local institution bar none. A great school can do so much to lift the hopes, aspirations and outcomes not only for young people but for an entire community.

What do I mean by accountable?

Our local schools really matter to each and every one of us. But are they accountable to us? Someone who is accountable is completely responsible for what they do and must be able to give a satisfactory reason for it. If we are unhappy, we can call them to account. This is accountability. So if local services are rubbish, we can challenge our local councillor and, come elections, remove our local council. Our local MP is vulnerable every five years both individually and on behalf of her party. For heaven’s sake, we dumped Winston Churchill in 1945, calling him to account for the domestic failures of years of Conservative “misrule”. Unfair? Possibly. Democratic? Absolutely ! And don’t even mention Trump.

How do we call our local schools to account?

Where is the democratic link and process that binds our local schools to our community? Sadly long gone. Since 2010 the tenuous democratic links that bound our community to its schools has been shattered. Now I’m the first one to agree that local authority education departments weren’t always brilliant, but this still leaves us with two questions. Firstly, how do we restore this accountability? Secondly, by what standards should we measure our local schools ?

So how to measure that school’s contribution?

By how it engages with our local economy? By the proportion of young  people engaged in meaningful work within our community? Instead, the accountability that continues to drive school policy will be determined by virtually meaningless league tables. We measure the forces that should shape a young person’s life by his or her performance on a single day in June, not by the enduring contribution that an education contributes to a young person’s life chances – chances which will mainly start right on our doorsteps. We measure the forces that should shape a young person’s life by his or her performance on a single day in June, not by the enduring contribution that an education contributes to a young person’s life chances – chances which will mainly start right on our doorsteps.

What is an education then, and what should we measure?

I question if measure is even an appropriate concept. I go further: I suggest that reducing assessment to the mere measurement of that which is conveniently measurable is a process which only those of mediocre minds could possibly conceive. Such a process would be laughable in the arts. We’d end up measuring the length of a symphony or book.

Great education is about great learning

Great education is about great learning and great learning is that which leads towards outcomes that can surprise, shock, amaze – but which are always life enhancing, transformational, as against predictable and mundane. Great education therefore is virtually immeasurable.

So here’s my definition of great education, with outcomes that should be assessed, valued and enhanced through time – if only we could make the effort.

A school is a series of doors, doors almost without number. Each one is called “My Life”. Each, when opened, represents a pathway rich in both challenges and opportunities, and along these pathways can be found devices, mechanisms, agencies, and even individuals that will support you on your way to a fulfillment of your potential. We don’t close doors. We don’t measure that potential by your class, wealth, colour or ethnicity. We don’t restrict your access to support. As far as you can go, we will support you.

Let’s try measuring that, and then we will be on a worthwhile journey. And it is happening in schools where brave leadership, and the support of their communities and employers, combine to create these pathways. Let’s celebrate these rather than persist with those insidious league tables and those who perpetuate and pander to them. Only closed minds close doors. According to the Edge Foundation report published recently, 60% of schools are busy slamming doors by planning to cut the provision of vocational qualifications as a result of the changes to the school performance tables.

High quality education that is focused on local needs is vital to regenerate the local employment scene for young people. So to quote a recent report:

“While providing bikes for hire on Hastings’ seafront – a city that has the eighth-highest youth unemployment rate of all cities in the UK – may well be a nice thing to have, it will do very little to tackle its economic challenges. Nor will it keep the next generation of Hastings youth from straying elsewhere in search of work”

Or just as bad, staying at home and workless. In August 2016 there were, according to the Government’s statistics, just under 300 18-24 year olds in Hastings and Rye on either Job Seekers Allowance or Universal Credit. This does not include non-claimants obviously. This is higher than Folkestone, Eastbourne and Brighton for example.

If we are to help boost the economic performance of our community,  then restoring the democratic links between our schools and our community is a crucial part. This will help build a culture that moves beyond chasing the latest pot of money on offer and creating real working partnerships between schools and business. Anyone who doubts how effective these partnerships can be should visit the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, a school that combines great results with unrivalled access to the world of work through its partnerships with major employers in the area. Its most impressive statistic is how many young people move into apprenticeships. To quote Ofsted:

” Many students enter apprenticeships, higher education courses and careers which reflect the characteristics of the University Technical College and its high reputation in the engineering and business industries and professions”.

“All Year 11 students carried on into further education, employment or training. All sixth form students leaving the academy went to university, found employment or entered an apprenticeship.

That’s what we should be aspiring to.
I leave you with the voice of a year 10 student in Salford who I’d asked about the impact on him of the choices he had to make the previous year.
“They took away from me an opportunity that might have changed my future.”

  • Peter Cobrin is an ex-teacher and now director of Employment Pathways, a campaigning organisation working with employers, educators, training providers and policy makers to make sure that talent is given a chance in the workplace. www.employementpathways.org.uk