OPINION: Pandemic has given us an opportunity to reset the UK education agenda - Dennis Richards, former headteacher

So the House of Commons Education Committee has published a report this month which states that white working class students, especially boys, have fallen behind their peers, in terms of achievement and progress.

Thursday, 1st July 2021, 11:23 am

Why we needed a report to tell us that is unclear. White working-class students have been under-achieving at school for several decades. Butler’s 1944 Education Act brought us the supposedly ground-breaking proposition that children are naturally either academic, technical or suitable for manual labour. The plan was flawed on many levels. Firstly, children cannot be classified in such a simplistic manner. And they most certainly cannot be pigeon-holed like that at the age of 11. Thirdly, even if you thought it was a good idea, as some areas of Germany still do, the technical high schools proposed by Butler were never built. And in a sense the UK has struggled ever since to put that omission right.

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Grimethorpe near Barnsley may not have been the optimum choice to begin a teaching career. Through many post-war generations, the vast majority of boys from the village went down t’pit and the girls moved on seamlessly, as it were, to a lingerie firm in Cudworth, (known locally as the knicker factory) owned by SR Gent. You couldn’t make it up. Slowly but surely, however, education created a fierce determination among pit village mothers that their sons, unlike their husbands, would not become miners. Aspirational working-class families began to be upwardly mobile, a process which reached its apotheosis in the Blairite vision that 50 per cent of our 18 year olds would one day go to university. That vision has come to fruition. But what about the other 50 per cent?

Post pandemic there is a new urgency to the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda the DfE asked Sir Kevan Collins to draw up an education recovery plan. Interesting guy Sir Kevan. Firmly rooted in the north, he attended secondary school in Preston. Obtained a PPE degree at Lancaster, crossed the Pennines to do his PGCE at Bradford and Ilkley Community College and spent most of his teaching career in deprived areas including Bradford and Tower Hamlets. He has first hand experience of child poverty, made worse in the last 18 months, widening the attainment gap even further. The Education Policy Institute has calculated that children under the age of six have lost 2.6 months of reading attainment in Yorkshire and Humber. Sir Kevan costed his two-year education recovery plan at £15bn. Rishi Sunak costed it at £1.5bn. Sir Kevan then did something to which Mr Williamson was wholly unaccustomed. He resigned. The funding row will now run and run.

There is also a widespread feeling in the world of education that the pandemic has given us an opportunity to reset the UK secondary education agenda. Mental health recovery is paramount. sport, music, art, theatre and dance should be restored to the curriculum in any order of priority a school may choose. And how about a renewed attempt to achieve a balance between the academic and the vocational? There are kids for whom a never-ending academic diet has provided to be purgatory. In some ways we’ve gone backwards. At Grimethorpe the 14-16 curriculum included the option of City and Guilds courses in motor vehicle studies, catering, environmental science and rural science with a greenhouse, some ducks and a pond. The kids learned important lessons about life, especially when the goldfish were nicked. We even had a tractor, although I daresay the risk assessment was a bit “iffy”. And although we were in a blighted former colliery environment, we even had horticulture. The kids called it digging. And loved it.