Plotting a ten-year course is the sensible response to Covid

6 Feb 2021, 5:00

A ten-year education plan like Blackpool’s is precisely the kind of policymaking our communities need and deserve, writes Frank Norris

When a town is viewed as having an educational problem, it affects so many things. Senior school leaders looking for a new challenge think twice about applying. Teaching positions, particularly in shortage subjects, go unfilled. Parents become understandably concerned about their children’s future. Policymakers are driven by the need to intervene quickly.

Blackpool was that town. It never lacked ambition for its young people. What it did lack, perhaps, was an agreed vision. In recent years, a new narrative has begun to emerge that is the result of significant collaboration between schools, CEOs, council staff, charities and government agencies. That work has given rise to a new ten-year education plan.

As its subtitle states, the plan is ‘school-led’, but that doesn’t mean schools are left with all the responsibility for raising standards. It rightly acknowledges the crucial role schools must play in driving change, but it also makes clear that all other local agencies, including those from the voluntary and private sectors, have an important role to play.

The resort has been subject to significant government and private investment over the years to help improve the outcomes achieved by children and young people. Through that work, regular, honest and open discussions between the town’s senior education leaders have spawned a mature network where co-operation and collaboration are bywords.

The plan is “school-led”, but schools are not left with all the responsibility’

It is the strength of this approach that places Blackpool in such a strong position as it looks to the future. All of this cooperation and collaboration has enabled Blackpool schools to step up together and support their local communities in an amazing and uplifting way during the pandemic. But the benefits accruing to the town predate Covid. They have already changed the landscape, even if they haven’t yet fully changed the narrative.

The vast majority of schools in the town, for example, are judged ‘good’ or better, with well over 90 per cent of pupils attending such schools. The secondary phase, a long-standing concern for the town, is showing signs of real improvement with the highest proportion achieving at least a ‘good’ Ofsted judgment.

Attendance levels were rising before the pandemic and fixed-term and permanent exclusions have reduced by over 75 per cent over the past three years. All special schools are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and the Pupil Referral Unit has been ‘good’ for many years. Despite high infection rates, attendance in Blackpool schools when pupils returned last September were at least at the regional average and, on many occasions, better than the national average.

Despite improvements, Blackpool has real pockets of deprivation and a significant number of families struggle to make ends meet. Though the number is reducing, it has a higher than average number of children in care and children who are subject to statutory services. These were factors that contributed to the establishment of an Opportunity Area in 2017. The additional investment and targeted interventions have seen gains in literacy standards at Key Stage 3, stronger careers guidance and the development of school-based specialist provision for the most vulnerable.

That is what the ten-year plan builds on. It has two key targets: to raise standards of literacy and to promote inclusive practice. We are setting out to provide a greater choice of high-quality alternative provision placements, a wider range of high-quality SEND placements and increased funding to focus on inclusion. We will be guided by a place-based approach to improvement, looking in more detail at schools’ contexts and supporting more communities.

Crucially, our efforts must be sustained and sustainable. Publication comes at a time when progress has been achieved but further impetus is required. It also comes as the town considers what life will look like after Covid.

After a year of continually responding to Covid’s immediate pressures, it’s time to tell a different story. Raising our eyes to a carefully set long-term course is surely the model of stability our communities need.

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