Hearing the news that 93% of constituencies in line to receive additional education funding under the new Prime Minister are Tory-held shows yet again that this is a Government with misplaced priorities.
It’s former coalfield communities that need the cash.
It’s time for a ‘Coalfields Challenge’ to give young people in former mining areas a fairer chance at social mobility, like the all-too-rare examples of the people who inspire me.
My teenage constituents Bryony Toon and Molly Carswell have had none of the advantages of privilege, but both may be destined for Oxbridge.
Bryony has spent several years in care and suffered with mental health problems, but will soon begin studying law at Oxford. What a testament to her intelligence and tenacity.
Molly will be the first in her family to go to university and recently attended a summer school at Cambridge University to try it for size. She told me: “The people were completely different to what I expected, and I realised I do not need to come from a rich family to access it.”
These young women are exceptional in every sense: Ashfield has always had low university attendance, with no more than a fifth of 18-year-olds starting university in recent years, but that figure has now slipped even further, to just 16.5% – the fourth lowest out of 650 parliamentary constituencies.
For comparison, just over 43% of 18-year-olds from Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire’s most prosperous constituency, started university in the same year.
The difference in opportunity for pupils who go to school just a few miles apart is nothing short of staggering.
Last year 80% of Rushcliffe GCSE students who did not qualify for free school meals achieved five or more good GCSE grades. That figure was just 62% in Ashfield.
Of those young people in Ashfield who did receive free dinners, just 26.1% got the five good GCSEs needed to go on to study for A levels. Yet, 51% of kids on free school meals down the road in Rushcliffe achieved this benchmark.
It’s bad enough that poorer pupils in England are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. But in my constituency, they are an astonishing 21.6 months of learning behind their non-disadvantaged peers by the end of secondary school.
It’s indisputably harder to get on in life if you come from my constituency than other parts of the country – particularly London.
But the capital’s far better performance on narrowing the education gap isn’t just a coincidence. A major factor according to experts was the London Challenge, a deliberate and holistic programme of positive innovation and investment in schools in the city during the last Labour Government.
That’s why we need a Coalfields Challenge, to emulate that transformation in former mining areas.
The London Challenge offered schools bespoke advice from experienced educationalists, innovative ways to work with other schools, and support to develop community hubs for parents and children.
The solutions for the Coalfields Challenge will be different, both in terms of tailoring solutions for the very different local context, and given the advances in research and technology that can be applied to the education sector today.
We would need to attract the best teachers, who are often more inclined to work in big cities, with the promise of more affordable housing or student loan forgiveness for working in coalfields areas. And we could use advances in technology to bring top business speakers to classrooms miles from Canary Wharf, to address the huge inequality in careers advice. And that’s just for starters.
Unfortunately, the government has not prioritised finding creative solutions, instead bringing schools to crisis point with constant cuts.
I visited headteachers in my constituency to discuss social mobility. I received the same message from them all – schools are doing everything they can, but having to do more with ever-decreasing budgets is tough.
At Abbey Hill Primary School, on one of the most deprived estates in Ashfield, nearly two-thirds of pupils qualify for free school meals and there are a significant number of vulnerable families who access support from Social Care, Family Service and the Early Help Team.
The inspiring headteacher Helen Chambers employs a support worker to help families with problems such as debt, health issues and foodbank referrals. She endeavours to provide trips and guest speakers to broaden children’s horizons.
But, as Jacquie Sainsbury, headteacher of nearby Brookhill Leys Primary School told me, having to provide so much more than just education puts a strain on budgets: “This takes resources and means that you are spread more thinly. We have to provide some children with breakfast, with uniform, with PE kits, because their parents don’t or can’t.”
It’s not that coalfields areas are lacking in aspiration – a stereotype I hear far too often.
Stephanie Dyce, headteacher of Hall Park Academy, told me about a recent encounter with a single mum whose kids have free school meals. She approached Stephanie saying, “My kids will be coming to your school and I need a school and headteacher who will help them achieve their potential.” She was ambitious for her children and did not want them written off just because of they live in a deprived area.
A local secondary teacher told me about the time he asked students, “Who wants a nice house, a nice car, a good job, a family, and enough money?” Every pupil raised their hand.
He then asked if they thought they were going to achieve that vision – and not a single hand went up.
People in coalfields areas have the same ambitions as anyone else. But without a major intervention like my Coalfields Challenge, even very straightforward dreams will be very difficult to realise.
Sajid Javid is famously the son of a bus driver, but benefitted from his education to become one of the most powerful men in the country. Will he use that power to announce a Coalfields Challenge fund in the spending review? Or will the grandchildren of miners have to keep waiting for a Labour government?
Sajid, there’s my challenge to you - please choose to accept it.
Gloria De Piero is the Labour MP for Ashfield