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Thursday Thunks

Social Mobility “Opportunity Areas” #ThursdayThunk

Justine Greening’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference included new “opportunity areas” in England.  The areas will collectively receive £60 million of funding to help local children get the best start in life.  How much funding each area gets and over how many years has yet to be decided.

Photo Credit: Gian Luigi Perrella via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Gian Luigi Perrella via Flickr cc


The idea of focusing on areas of greatest need should be applauded.  Helping local children get the best start in life also gets my vote.  However, it’s not new, I’ve lived through other such initiatives and Blackpool is still in need of significant support.  It came as no surprise the townwas in the first six opportunity areas.

Having spent the last sixteen years leading in Blackpool, I have a certain perspective to offer.  It’s a perspective rooted in the daily lived experience of leading a school in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.  There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of detail about the social mobility opportunity areas yet.  In the hope the details haven’t yet been fully worked out here’s a few thoughts that I hope will be included.

Fairer Funding First

Additional funding is always welcomed, it would be churlish to suggest otherwise.  The bigger financial issue, however, is that some of the most deprived local authorities, Blackpool being an example in case, are funded below the national average.  This doesn’t make any sense given the additional challenges the schools in these areas face.

My first suggestion is that any of the six areas named – West Somerset, Norwich, Blackpool, Scarborough, Derby and Oldham – whose funding is below the national average should see an immediate uplift in funding to the national average.  Once the core funding is in place the additional funding becomes just that, additional to the core business of running the school.

Think Inside Out

This is one of those “if I had a pound moments”.  If I had a pound for every consultant or external advisor or successful school/school leader who had come into Blackpool to tell us to pull up our socks, get our act together or have higher aspirations I’d have retired by now.  The ending of the story is often similar; they are around for a year or two, have little impact and either realise the enormity of the task (school goes back into special measures) or simply disappear off to find easier pickings.  People who teach and lead within Blackpool understand the context better than most but can get worn down by the challenge faced.

Second suggestion is to use funding – not just to pull great people into Blackpool – to get the great people already in Blackpool out and about on extended visits or engaged in a high quality peer support and innovation groups; expose them to excellence.

Over a decade ago the governing body decided they wanted me to get out and about and see the best that England has to offer in educational terms; keep the horizon line high and keep your sights fixed on it.  It’s all credit to them and thanks to people like Sue Williamson of the SSAT and Professor David Hargreaves that I had the chance to engage with some great people during my time as a headteacher.  Way beyond the confines of Blackpool; I still visit a number of different schools each year and engage with knowledgeable colleagues to ensure I never stop learning.

St. Mary’s Progress 8 scores for the last two years have both been positive, Christ the King’s Progress scores were well above average this year and St. Cuthbert’s is on its way.  In short we are doing something right in our schools with better progress than many other schools across the country.  I also realise there is more that we can do and some other schools’ progress is something we must aspire to.

Contextualise Progress Scores

For all the froth around this year’s progress scores I believe they are a massive step forward.  They give an insight into the work a school is doing as opposed to attainment scores which are more a measure of a school’s intake.  Progress scores give schools in a disadvantaged area a fighting chance when it comes to accountability.

Third suggestion is to contextualise progress scores and make them multi-year.  Schools in disadvantaged areas can have more turbulent times than most so a multi-year measure can help even out the usual and more unusual variability without allowing poor performance to go unnoticed.  These ideas are straight from the Headteachers’ Roundtable Alternative Green Paper, Schools that Enable All to Thrive and Flourish.

Connect the Dots, Be in It for the Long Term

The government is to be commended for requiring “local partnerships … with early years’ providers, schools, colleges, universities, businesses, charities and local authorities <working together> to ensure all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential.”  But government departments find it horrendously difficult to work together.  The fact it is hard or they are not very good at it isn’t an excuse for not doing it or giving up; it’s a similar approach when teaching white working class boys, a level of insistence and persistence is needed.  In disadvantaged communities the challenges are complex and multiple.  They won’t be solved by one sector or overnight.

Final suggestion is to commit to a decade long programme and stay with it through the ups and downs of implementation.  It’s a challenge, ask anyone who has tried.  Enable health and social services to operate out of schools, engaged with pupils and their families, if you really want to make a difference.

The Department for Education wants, “to ensure children get the best start in the early years, to build teaching and leadership capacity in schools, to increase access to university, to strengthen technical pathways for young people, and work with employers to improve young people’s access to the right advice and experiences.”  Sounds good, I’m ready when you are.

#ThursdayThunk is based on something I’ve been thinking about, discussing, working on or has been topical that week.  The thunk is designed to be bite sized and will deliberately be kept short.  It will take one small issue or an aspect of something much bigger.  The intention is for it to be read in two/three minutes as you’re busy running around at the end of the week or relaxing on your day off.



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