Why Fenton and our city need the Town Hall and memorial to be saved

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

Tomorrow the first of The Sentinel’s four Great War centenary supplements is published and I can honestly say it has been a privilege to be involved in the project.

Occasions like this, when we are required to delve deep into the newspaper’s archives are rare, and the process has thrown up some astonishing tales, some wonderful images and – I have to say – some terrific writing by my predecessors.

Slowly but surely the 100th anniversary of the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ is seeping into the nation’s consciousness and here in North Staffordshire we are uncovering just how the conflict changed lives forever.

It was a war which altered Britain beyond imagining and had a dramatic and often devastating effect on communities and families across the land.

Among them, of course, were the 498 men of Fenton who paid the ultimate price for serving King and country and whose names are recorded on the unique Minton Hollins tiled memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

For many of those brave souls that memorial is, to all intents and purposes, their grave marker.

They include Frederick Heath, of Mill Street, Fenton, who historians recently credited as being the soldier most likely to have written the definitive account of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.

Sadly, in the year that some of the £50 million the Government has set aside starts to be spent on a variety of projects to commemorate the Great War, this memorial – and indeed the building which houses it – remain under serious threat.

Fenton Town Hall, created for and bequeathed to the people of Fenton, is up for grabs with a price tag of around £500,000.

A moratorium on its sale has just expired and campaigners seeking what is snappily-titled a ‘community asset transfer’ are concerned that officials at the Ministry of Justice – which somehow acquired the building during its time as a magistrates’ court – have gone awfully quiet all of a sudden.

The positive meeting which took place in December between the Friends of Fenton Town Hall and the man who will ultimately decide the building’s fate gave everyone hope that Whitehall’s bureaucrats were perhaps listening at last.

After all, a 10,000-signature petition calling on the building to be given back to the community was handed in at Downing Street late last year and campaigners have, to their credit, made an awful lot of noise.

Even the national treasure that is Stephen Fry Tweeted his support for their cause.

But having been fobbed off for weeks now I can understand why campaigners are growing increasingly worried that this historically important building may be sold off from under their noses.

If that were to happen then, irrespective of any protection order placed on the memorial as a condition of sale, its safety could simply not be guaranteed.

Also, I suspect it is unlikely new owners would want members of the public trooping up their stairs to view the memorial or pay their respects to relatives.

I find it hard to understand why the cenotaph outside Fenton Town Hall – which links directly to the memorial inside – was given listed status and yet the unique tiled memorial was not.

Sadly, a man with a clipboard from English Heritage decided not to list Fenton Town Hall and, therefore, its interior – including the Minton tiling and the memorial itself – is unprotected.

I am in full agreement with campaigners and the Victorian Society who are urging the MoJ to work with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to find a new role for Fenton Town Hall which ensures that its vaulted chamber and First World War memorial remain intact and accessible to the public.

I believe the town and people of Fenton need this building as a focal point. The city owes it to philanthropist William Meath Baker who built it, and to the men whose names are listed on the memorial inside, to preserve it for future generations.

How can we, in all good conscience, sit idly by and allow it to be sold off in the year when we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War?

Wouldn’t it be great if the city’s MPs and the city council could help to broker some sort of deal whereby the campaigners – and indeed the people of Fenton – were given a chance to resurrect the Town Hall for community use?

The campaigners are doing their bit and I would suggest it is time for the powers-that-be to stand up and be counted.

Ultimately, of course, the decision on the building’s fate lies with civil servants in Whitehall.

The department these taxpayer-funded civil servants work for is called the Ministry of Justice. So let’s see some justice for the 498 men of Fenton who gave their lives in pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy today.

*Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

Why Freedom of the City honour would never stop The Sentinel doing its job

The Sentinel's offices in Hanley.

The Sentinel’s offices in Hanley.

We like to think we’re reasonably well informed at The Sentinel but I have to say the announcement that the newspaper we work for is set to be honoured with the Freedom of the City came as something of a shock to our newsroom.

That doesn’t mean to say everyone who works here isn’t thrilled at the prospect, of course.

It’s simply a reflection of the fact that it wasn’t something any of us envisaged. Such honours, rare as they are, tend to be given to other organisations or notable individuals and we dutifully tell everyone about them and record the news for posterity.

It’s a rather exclusive club we may be joining if councillors approve the idea.

Members include Lucie Wedgwood, the North Staffordshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s) – as was, Sir Stanley Matthews CBE, Stoke City FC and – very soon, hopefully – Robbie Williams esquire.

That the Freedom of Stoke-on-Trent is set to be conferred on The Sentinel as we mark our 160th year is a huge honour, a welcome boost to its employees, and a timely acknowledgment of the newspaper’s place in the city’s history.

Who knows what the aspirations of the founding fathers were when they launched The Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser on January 7, 1854?

However, I dare say that if you had told them the product of their invention would still be chronicling local life in 2014 they would have been pleased at the thought.

The format may have changed, it may have evolved into something markedly different to the original offering, it may have a website currently generating 50,000-plus visitors each day, but the basic function of this newspaper remains the same as it ever was. To inform, educate and entertain the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. When you’re producing the equivalent of a small novel every day you’re bound to – no matter how many pairs of eyes you have scanning the pages and web uploads. But hopefully people can see we do far more good than harm and I like to think most Sentinel readers trust the paper, rely on its integrity, and understand that its journalists do things in all good faith for the right reasons.

Which brings me neatly on to what being given the Freedom of the City actually means for an organisation like the local newspaper.

Does it mean, as some mischievous commentators may claim, that we’re too close to the city council?

The suggestion is patently absurd given that The Sentinel is unquestionably the most passionate advocate of Potteries folk and the only organisation locally with the resources or the know-how to consistently hold decision-makers to account.

I don’t believe any self-respecting councillor would want The Sentinel to be anything other than a critical friend of the local authority and an organisation they, like anyone else, can turn to for help and support.

After all, if you remove us from the equation who else would attend all the meetings, quiz elected members, speak to residents’ associations or let people vent their spleen to tens of thousands of taxpayers six days a week through well-thumbed letters’ pages?

No, there’s absolutely no danger of this fantastic honour somehow equating to an unseemly, cosy relationship between The Sentinel and the city council – or anyone else for that matter.

The truth is, certainly during my time with this newspaper, the organisations have worked together on many intrinsically positive initiatives and yours truly has been involved with most of them.

Those that spring to mind include the Staffordshire Saxon project; the annual City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in their 39th year); The Sentinel Business Awards (now in their 20th year); the recent Robbie Williams tourist trail, exhibition and charity fans’ festival and the bid for a HS2 hub station.

We work with our colleagues at the city council on these projects because they are hugely positive, they champion local people and they help our city aspire to better things.

Now add those projects to The Sentinel’s campaigns for a new North Staffs Hospital and for the cancer drug Herceptin to be made available to all women on the NHS or our fight to save Port Vale FC and the name of our county regiment.

Then there’s the Young Journalist Awards, the Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition and the Our Heroes community awards.

You start to build up a picture of how, over time, this newspaper is a genuine force for good and can hopefully understand why a local lad like me who used to deliver The Sentinel in Sneyd Green during the mid-1980s is enormously proud of working for it.

Of course, these are just some of the campaigns and projects which this newspaper has been involved with during my 15 years here.

Think of the good The Sentinel has done over 160 years, the help it has given, the information disseminated to generations of families through good times and bad, and the role the newspaper has played and continues to play in local democracy.

Ignore the trolls who will inevitably pour scorn on this column on our website. It’s easy to mock and disparage which is why the internet remains the virtual equivalent of the Wild West.

The Freedom of the City is an honour that would be gratefully and graciously received by The Sentinel’s current generation of journalists on behalf of everyone who went before and everyone who comes after.

Here’s to keeping people informed for the next 160 years… whether that be through film, the internet, via phones and tablets, or by you getting good, old-fashioned print on your hands.

We’ll still be The Sentinel: Local and proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Civic honours for Robbie Williams something we can all agree on

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Today The Sentinel celebrates the achievements of a local lad done good.

It’s a story that will please many but doubtless cause a vocal minority to reach for their keyboards or pens to condemn the council, The Sentinel and probably the bloke in question too.

It was as recently as November 15 that I suggested through this column that our city should do something to honour Robbie Williams’s achievements – both in terms of his career in music and his charity work.

This was on the back of plans for RWFanFest – a celebration led by fans being planned here in Stoke-on-Trent to mark Rob’s 40th birthday and to raise much-needed funds for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice (DLCH).

My contention was that it was about time the city did something to acknowledge one of its most famous sons – i.e. Robert Peter Williams, formerly of Take That, who has for some time been the UK’s most popular solo music artist.

This is because, until now, there has been nothing here in the Potteries to say that a bloke who has sold more than 70 million records and won more BRIT Awards than any other artist comes from our neck of the woods.

The statistics of his career to date are impressive enough in terms of concert tickets and albums sold, but when you add to that his charity endeavours then surely no-one would dispute that his home city can rightly be proud of the man known to millions as Robbie.

With his mate Jonny Wilkes he created the bi-annual Soccer Aid football match which has so far raised more than £11 million for children’s charity UNICEF.

Perhaps more pertinently Robbie has given away £5 million of his own money through his Give It Sum charity to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire and, let’s not forget, bought £250,000 worth of shares in his beloved Port Vale which, at the time, saved the club from going bust.

He has a Staffordshire knot tattoo on the back of his hand and constantly references both his birthplace and his football club through his music lyrics and when on stage in front of millions.

Robbie may not live in the ST postcode area anymore but no-one could accuse him of forgetting his roots – unlike many celebrities drawn to the bright lights of London or Los Angeles.

Today we announce that the city council has decided to create various legacy projects which not only honour Robbie for his achievements to date but also tap into the potential of brand RW for the benefit of the city in terms of raising its profile and helping to bring in tourists and visitors.

This is something which, I believe, Robbie himself would approve of and I’m sure he’s as chuffed as his mum and dad are that very soon there will be a tourist trail, streets named in honour of his music, a ‘Robbie Day’ in schools and a photographic and memorabilia exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG).

Hopefully, one day soon, (and inevitably incognito) he will arrive in Stoke-on-Trent to have a look for himself at the legacy work being done in his name.

When initiatives like this are undertaken critics often argue that the recipient of the honour isn’t worthy or cannot be compared to other famous names who have been paid similar tributes.

In the case of Stoke-on-Trent we are talking about the likes of Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell CBE and Sir Stanley Matthews CBE who have statues here in the Potteries and who have been honoured with street names and exhibitions.

Of course, to compare them with each other would be like comparing apples and pears. Both were sublime in their respective fields and I suspect both would be gracious enough to acknowledge a recording artist with the stature of Robbie Williams as someone worthy of recognition by his home city.

Another thing critics of initiatives such as those announced today often pick up on is the cost to council taxpayers so let’s nail that one now.

The cost for all the projects unveiled today is minuscule – primarily because they represent a partnership between the local authority, this newspaper, the DLCH, private firms, members of the community and individuals like Robbie’s mum and dad.

In my opinion spending a few thousand pounds on an exhibition at PMAG and creating a tourist trail (the other projects are cost neutral) is well worth the initial modest outlay when you think about the potential benefits.

This money wouldn’t have saved jobs or prevented a council-run facility from closing but it will definitely help brighten up our city and increase our ‘offer’, as they say in tourist-speak, to visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. Having a Robbie Day in schools sounds brilliant in terms of engaging children through music and art. Why not?

Naming streets with a nod to the bloke’s tunes costs nowt. It’s just a nice gesture so I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that – unless they want to pick fault with the names, that is. I guess someone’s bound to.

I’d like to think that down the line our temporary Robbie exhibition leads to a permanent one somewhere here in the Potteries – hopefully including items donated by the man himself.

The council and this newspaper are constantly criticised for being too negative about the city. Hopefully today will be one of those rare occasions where everyone can agree that the announcements represent a win/win for all concerned – especially, of course, a charity close to Robbie’s heart.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

My hopes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

As we approach December 31, it’s a time to reflect but also to look forward to what 2014 may bring.

Top of my wish list for the New Year is a hope that a little girl from Burslem will move further down the road to recovery.

I’ve not met Francesca Allen but I’m one of the hundreds of people locally who’s done a little bit of fund-raising for her.

In August she was diagnosed with leukaemia and since then her courage and beautiful smile have inspired many of us.

Whatever 2014 brings, let’s hope it is a happier and healthier one for a three-year-old who has touched the hearts of people across the Potteries.

In February pop superstar Robbie Williams turns 40 and here in his home city we’re having a bit of a do to celebrate.

RWFanFest is a month-long festival which honours the achievements of Britain’s top-selling music artist and someone who has given £5 million of his own money away to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire.

There’ll be an exhibition of never-before-seen memorabilia and photographs at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a charity gig in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice, a fans’ art exhibition at Burslem School of Art and bus tours around the ‘Robbie trail’.

That’s not all. Expect a lot more too as Stoke-on-Trent finally embraces its celebrity son. Watch this space…

This year Sentinel readers campaigned hard to help save the name of their local regiment.

The Staffords, or 3Mercian as they are now known, had been under threat from Ministry of Defence cutbacks.

But a 17,000-strong petition taken to 10 Downing Street showed the strength of feeling locally and Army top brass gave a commitment to preserve the name.

Our boys are currently on active service out in Afghanistan so spare a thought for them as you tuck into your left-over turkey and mince pies.

Here’s hoping they can complete their final tour as 3Mercian successfully and ALL return home to their loved ones safely.

Sticking with the military theme, 2014 promises to be a big year for commemorating conflicts.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and events and initiatives are being planned all over the country.

The Sentinel has a number of special supplements planned – including the re-publishing of interviews with First World War veterans as well as letters from The Front.

We will also be working with a variety of organisations to ensure that the county’s rich military heritage is celebrated.

On that note, June marks 70 years since D-Day and world leaders, veterans and tourists will gather in Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen of arguably the greatest invasion the world has ever seen.

The Sentinel has interviewed surviving veterans from all three branches of the services – both for the newspaper and on film for our website – and will be producing a souvenir pull-out to coincide with the anniversary.

Regular readers of this column will know I’m a big believer in celebrating our heritage and so I’ll be supporting Fenton residents in their campaign to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War Memorial.

The fight has already received the backing of celebrities including Stephen Fry, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the building to be returned to public ownership rather than sold off to a private buyer by the Ministry of Justice.

Let’s hope justice prevails and the people of Fenton are allowed to retain this civic gem in 2014.

I’ll also be doing my bit in the New Year to help raise the profile of RW388.

That’s the serial number of the city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, housed in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which is in urgent need of some tender loving care.

Here in the birthplace of its designer Reginald Mitchell, I think it’s vital we do all we can to help restore and conserve this wonderful aircraft for future generations.

Expect plenty of coverage of the battle to save RW388 in The Sentinel and, if you want to make a contribution, you can pick up a copy of a fund-raising Spitfire calendar comprising terrific archive photographs from our reception, priced at £7.99.

If you do pop up to Hanley you’ll notice that work on the much-maligned Central Business District continues apace.

Given that I can’t see the powers-that-be at the council changing their mind about plans for the city centre, I just hope the CBD progresses quickly and there is movement on the long-awaited City Sentral shopping development.

I’m not holding my breath for the latter, given the delays and curious lack of communication from the developers but perhaps we will see a scaled-down version of the original plans. Anything would be better than nothing at this stage.

Turning to sport, I’d like to wish Peter Coates and Stoke City all the best for the remainder of the season.

Potters manager Mark Hughes is lucky to have such a passionate and reasonable bloke at the helm – one who will give him the time and resources to mould his own team in the hope of taking them to the next level.

Meanwhile, at my beloved Port Vale my only wish is for a period of stability – or rather, an end to any financial uncertainty.

Fingers crossed Micky Adams signs a new deal, anyone who is owed any money by the club gets paid, and Vale fans are given closure with regard to the activities of certain individuals who brought the club to its knees in 2012.

I know I speak for The Sentinel when I wish chairman Norman Smurthwaite and his team all the best for a successful and prosperous 2014 – hopefully free of media bans and full of goodwill to all fans… and journalists.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

Time to back sure-fire winners which matter to our Six Towns

The Sentinel's front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

The Sentinel’s front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

When you’re staring down the barrel of £20 million cuts, every penny really does count.

The truth is that because of the way the squeeze is being applied to local authorities, in a few short years practically all they will be responsible for will be the most basic of statutory services.

What that means is the non-essential stuff inevitably diminishes or is lost altogether.

Departments such as sport and leisure and facilities like museums and libraries will see their budgets scaled back enormously as councillors focus on what they have to deliver by law.

So the street lights will stay on, bins will be emptied, children’s services and adult social care will be ring-fenced. But in all honesty virtually everything else local authorities are responsible for will be up for discussion.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent, where the public sector cutbacks are being felt as keenly as any other city in the UK, councillors have attempted in recent years to protect frontline services as Whitehall has slashed and burned.

Now there’s very little wriggle-room left and how the comparatively small amount of money which doesn’t cover the costs of essential services is spent, will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Things like the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), hosting the Tour Series cycle ride events, the staging of summer pop concerts or the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards will all have to be carefully considered.

The problem is they cost money. Some cost a lot more than you’d think. And taxpayers will want to know there is a tangible benefit to the city in staging or hosting such events.

They will want to know what is gained from them. They will ask about the benefits of having highlights of a bicycle race which starts in the city being shown on ITV4. Does it really boost trade in the city centre and has there been a huge spike in the numbers of people cycling locally?

Is it better instead to continue with a 39-year tradition of honouring local sportsmen and women and inspiring future stars from our patch with an event which is a fraction of the cost?

Taxpayers will want to know how the BCB, an event which most people in the city don’t understand, don’t know is happening and will never attend, helps to raise the profile of the city.

More to the point, they will ask how pottery manufacturers who employ local people benefit from it in terms of increased sales and new contracts.

They will want to know if it really is worth paying hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the cost of a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does it really help to attract investment? If so, they will say, then show us the money.

We really will have to get down to brass tacks now because the time for gambles and indulgences is over.

It is time instead to back sure-fire winners and to protect the things which really matter to people here in the Six Towns. It is time to safeguard things like free admission to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which houses exhibits such as the priceless Staffordshire Hoard, the city’s Spitfire and an unrivalled, world-class collection of ceramics.

Now isn’t the time to start charging admission fees for somewhere like this. Instead, let’s make the museum the best it can possibly be – somewhere tourists marvel at and people boast about.

Let’s put in place plans to protect the fabulous Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, The Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall and Bethesda Chapel because, let’s face it, without them there would be no such thing as a ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Let’s protect the libraries which have chronicled local life for decades – places where the less well-off, the students and mums with young children can congregate to laugh and learn.

Let’s invest in the people of the Potteries – from better pitches for the Ladsandads leagues and better facilities for am-dram productions to making the tradition that is the Potters’ Arf bigger and better.

Let’s shout about Robbie Williams and Sir Stan and Reginald Mitchell and Arnold Bennett and all the greats our city has produced.

Let’s be proud of our history and heritage and fight to protect buildings like the deteriorating Wedgwood Big House in Burslem or the under-threat Fenton Town Hall with its unique Great War memorial.

Personally, I‘d far rather money be spent on giving the people of Fenton a focal point for events in their town than paying a company from outside the city to create a short-lived garden in London that none of us will ever see.

To my mind, if we want others to invest in our city then we need to polish what we have across the Six Towns rather than putting all our eggs in Hanley’s basket and spending money on vanity projects which yield little in the way of results.

It’s time we started looking after our own and trumpeting the wonderful assets Stoke-on-Trent has which other cities would be making a virtue of.

One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, no-one else will.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday.