As a school leader in the North East, I’ve developed a high degree of immunity to the plethora of poorly informed “must do better” comments about our schools. Most school leaders are far too busy trying to make a genuine difference to the students in our care to respond to this type of diatribe. However, I find it impossible to let the comments of Clare Marchant, CEO of UCAS, go unchallenged. “It will be school aspiration and attainment, it’s as simple as that” was her ill-informed opinion as to why only 31.7% of 18 year olds from the North East applied to university. This represents a fall of 4.6% from the previous year, in stark contrast to London, where 47.5% of 18 year olds applied.
I wonder how many North East schools Ms Marchant has actually visited to formulate her hypothesis about our schools? I for one would welcome her to see what our schools are actually like. One thing that she won’t find a shortage of is high aspirations for our students, something I’ve certainly experienced a massive change for the better in during my 26 years of working in North East schools. As for attainment, I see nothing other than school staff working tirelessly to improve outcomes for their students. However, what Ms. Marchant, Sir Michael Wilshaw and others completely fail to acknowledge is the vast disparity in educational spending between the North East and London. Funding is never the sole answer but, frustratingly, many strategies which we know improve student outcomes are impossible to implement due to funding constraints. Chronic under-investment in North East schools has reduced capacity to offer the quality of education our children deserve, at the same time as austerity measures have increased disadvantage. The impact of demographics, rather than school effectiveness, is recognised in the recent report by Datalab and points to the need for increased investment in Northern schools.
As someone who would have qualified for Pupil Premium had it existed in the 1980s, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have studied at university in the golden days of “maximum grant”. This meant that as the first in my family to access higher education, I could study without the worry of running up debt. Given financial barriers facing by students today, I wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same decision if I was applying under the current system. Ms Marchant would do well to spend more time considering the financial barriers, both real and perceived, that deter many disadvantaged students from applying to university.
I always like to end on a positive note and I am proud of the fact that almost 50% of our first ever A level cohort at Whitburn gained places at Russell Group universities. However, I am equally proud of the significant number of students who will go on to achieve degree level qualifications through higher level apprenticeships. Therein lies a key part of the solution to more of our students gaining degree level qualifications; the system needs to diversify to better meet the needs of our students and a degree needn’t mean three years. Changing the admissions system to be based on actual rather than predicted results would also make a positive difference to disadvantaged students, as set out so clearly by the Sutton Trust. So my advice to Ms Marchant would be to invest her time in reforming her own organisation and remove barriers for North East students, rather than taking the lazy option of making ill-judged comments that do nothing to inspire more North East students to apply to university through conventional means or otherwise.
Alan Hardie, Principal of Whitburn Church of England Academy and Acting CEO of Northumberland Church of England Academy