Don’t take school league tables at face value

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

I felt very honoured when I was recently asked to say a few words at an awards evening for students at my former school held up at the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

It was an historic occasion as it marked the last prize-giving for young people at Holden Lane High which is currently being demolished to make way for the new buildings of the Excel Academy.

Sad as this may be for former pupils like me, I can’t help but be excited for the children who will benefit from the new state-of-the-art facilities – including my nephew.

There is no doubt that, at the age of 50, my old school is past its use-by date and, frankly, it was no longer possible to paper over the cracks.

Education has evolved beyond all recognition since I left Holden Lane in 1988 and the classrooms and corridors yours truly was once anonymous in are simply no longer fit for purpose.

I’m a firm believer that children learn better if they have decent facilities.

That, of course, is what the city council’s Building Schools for the Future programme is attempting to create: Stimulating learning environments for children of the digital age.

As the programme rolls out across Stoke-on-Trent it is clear that this investment in future generations is desperately needed.

Yesterday we learned that, by Ofsted’s measures at least, the Potteries is the third worst area in England in terms of secondary school education.

Just 34 per cent of pupils in the city attend a good or outstanding secondary school which means that the other 66 per cent are being failed by their schools and teachers.

Or does it?

Personally, I don’t believe that it’s as simple as saying two-thirds of the secondary schools in Stoke-on-Trent aren’t up to scratch.

Yes, of course, the standards of teaching and leadership at these schools is a key component in a child’s education.

But, speaking as a school governor myself, I know there are many factors which influence how a school performs in terms of Ofsted ratings and exam results.

I understand that we need benchmarks but many teachers will tell you that Ofsted inspections are rather one-dimensional in that they do not take into account external factors which influence how a school, its staff and its students are graded.

For example, a school in a leafy Cheshire suburb with healthy finances and a stable teaching staff simply cannot be compared fairly with its cash-strapped equivalent in a deprived area of Stoke-on-Trent.

By the same token a school with an active PTA and strong governing body clearly has a distinct advantage over a comparable school where apathy reigns and only a minority can even be bothered to turn out for parents’ evenings.

With the best will in the world, all teachers can do is create a quality learning environment for their charges.

If little Johnny hasn’t had any breakfast and is falling asleep in class because he sat up ’til 3am playing on his X-Box then clearly his teachers will have a struggle to engage with him.

It is churlish to simply blame schools or teachers, the council or even the current government for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent ranks so poorly in the latest standings.

Here in our city there are some terrific schools and many examples of teachers who are making a huge difference to the lives of young people in their care.

Take my old school – now the Excel Academy – which has jumped from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ thanks to the vision and hard work of its teaching staff and governors.

But they can only do so much because, ultimately, educational attainment goes to the heart of complex societal problems.

The poor performance of schools goes hand-in-hand with levels of deprivation, worklessness and poor health.

In homes where adults who feel failed by the system themselves devote little or no time to helping their children with homework and consider the TV or games console a baby-sitting service then it is a given that youngsters will struggle academically.

In some secondary schools, the sad fact is that – for many teachers – simply keeping the peace and maintaining a reasonable level of discipline is almost a full-time job in itself, because the behaviour of certain pupils is so poor.

I recently gave a talk to a group of retired headteachers and they spoke passionately about what was wrong with schools today.

Some blamed poor standards of teaching.

Others said Ofsted inspectors weren’t necessarily qualified to run the rule over proper teachers.

Some blamed successive governments for constant tinkering with the curriculum.

Others argued that far too many students were going on to further education and that only the cream should go on to university.

The one thing these retired school leaders did agree on, however, was that none of them envied today’s teachers and they agreed that the job is more difficult in 2013 than it was five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Idea of Scottish independence frightens and saddens me in equal measure

I know when it happened. I had just climbed up the steps to the top of the Glenfinnan Monument, squeezed myself on to the viewing platform and was looking out across the sun-kissed shores of Loch Shiel.

That’s when I fell in love with Scotland.

I’ve visited Skye several times and even Orkney, Mull and Iona as well as braving the elements for a boat trip to the stunning Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa.

In my opinion, there is simply nowhere in Britain to rival the rugged beauty and sheer majesty of the Highlands.

Like my nan and grandad before me, who enjoyed many coach trips north of the border, I love Scotland.

I holiday there every year and I’ve never viewed taking the high road as going abroad. To my mind it is more akin to popping next door.

We are all part of the same island, after all, and so it’s no different for me to driving from Staffordshire into Cheshire – albeit a tad further.

Thus I find it hard to accept the concept of Scottish independence and the much talked-about referendum leaves me cold.

Rarely do I venture off-patch in my columns but the planned vote which could see our northern neighbours secede the United Kingdom frightens and saddens me in equal measure.

On the one hand, the political and economic arguments just don’t stack up for me. Surely, as our city’s motto says, United Strength Is Stronger.

It stands to reason that Britain has far more clout than any of its constituent parts would have if they were to go it alone.

At present, our tiny nation punches above its weight on the international stage.

Why therefore, at this time of global financial crisis, would anyone think it a good idea to break up the union?

Surely the Scots don’t buy Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond’s vision of a Gaelic utopia fuelled by endless supplies of North Sea oil (and none of our nation’s debt).

While the SNP chases the Braveheart vision of freedom, it strikes me that unravelling the Union would actually be complex in the extreme.

The problems it throws up range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

What would Scottish independence mean for our Armed Forces? Would the Scots keep the Pound, adopt the Euro, or make up their own currency? How would shared border controls be handled? What would it mean in terms of tuition fees for English students studying at Scottish universities? What would happen to the BBC and Team GB?

To my mind, while far from perfect, the Union has far more advantages than disadvantages.

What’s more, time and again it is the echoes of our shared heritage which convince me that a break-up after 300 years would be deeply unpalatable.

The peoples of the United Kingdom share common values which I believe should not be lightly cast aside in a jingoistic fervor surrounding the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.

Let the facts be presented: The legalities of who calls a referendum plus the costs, the ramifications, the benefits and the disadvantages of such a momentous splitting of cultures must be laid bare to bring some clarity to the debate.

Ultimately, the decision must rest with the Scottish people but the discussion is one in which we should surely all be allowed to take part.

I spoke to a friend of mine about it all – a Scot who has made his living and home here in Stoke-on-Trent – and asked for his views on Scottish independence.

He wasn’t even sure he would get a vote on the matter but if he did, he said he would be against the split on gut instinct alone.

He said: “I think about all those boys in the Army who fought together in the wars and it just doesn’t seem right splitting us up.”

Amen to that, brother.

Ready my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel