Last week this paper featured the story of one of our local schools - King Solomon ARK Academy - celebrating its first ever set of public examination results this summer. With 93% achieving five A*-C including English and Maths and 75% achieving the English Baccalaureate, these outstanding results placed this new school as the seventh best performing comprehensive school in the country even though 75 per cent of pupils are eligible for the pupil premium, and the school is situated in Westminster’s Church Street Ward with the highest deprivation affecting children in London.
But the news of the success in Westminster’s state schools was not restricted to the King Solomon Academy as students and teachers of many other of our Westminster schools have also been celebrating outstanding results this summer; scoring significantly better than the national average of 59.2% at GCSE and 81% A*-C at A Level compared with the 77% nationally.
So how was this achieved? How have our schools hauled themselves up so dramatically from a decade ago, when St George’s in Maida Vale – where I am a School Governor – saw only 30% achieving 5 A-Cs but which this summer celebrated 75% in spite of Michael Gove’s tough overhaul of the curriculum?
Almost without exception in Westminster it is possible to track the evolution of these successes to the political embracement of the Academies programme and the freedoms that came with them for ambitious and energetic Head Teachers to eschew the culture of low expectation and ‘prizes for all’ and to run them the way they wanted to. Boosted by additional resources made available specifically to help achieve the target of 75% 5 A-Cs – crucially to include Maths and English - following Westminster’s Education Commission in 2009 (on which I was proud to serve) the groundwork was laid to ensure that whatever could be done, was being done to re-introduce excellence and aspiration to our local schools.
There is nothing new about the route to this success and the powerful ideas that underpin it: strong leadership; commitment; discipline; strict-uniform; team effort; rewards for good behaviour; punishment for bad; competitive sports and a business-like culture that celebrates achievement, in addition to the practicalities of after-school activities, homework clubs and Saturday school - all supported by energetic, flexible and ambitious teachers who always put the children at the heart of their priorities.
Old fashioned values boosted by modern technology that co-incidentally never left the independent sector, enabling them to forge ahead over the last thirty years, free of political dogma to a point now where privately educated children disproportionately dominate all our best universities and jobs and the gap between rich and poor has never greater or our communities more polarised.
It took a while for the failings of our state education to trickle down and impact on society as those who could, simply opted out. Just as it will take time for the Academies revolution to reverse and redress this chasm. But it will happen as our ambitious Head Teachers take hold of the newly invigorated national curriculum and continue the drive to provide youngsters who often have little other support in their lives or opportunities to study the “hard” subjects favoured by our best universities.
But borrowing from the culture of our independent schools also means recognising that there is no shame in not being academic. If your child is dyslexic, or theatrical, or sporty or artistic, there is always choice to find a school where they will thrive and not sink under pressure of conventional academia or be overwhelmed by those stronger or more able. Streaming is not about success or failure; it is about building confidence and finding what is best for each child at their level. And determining the best place for them at 11 or 13 by common entrance or interview (as still happens) is no bad thing either; feeder schools pride themselves on results and high standards and no child enters their senior school unable to read or write.
I want the same choices and standards for all parents and children, not just those who can pay for it. And I don’t want to live in a divided community of haves and have-nots. Tapping into the many talents of all our young; creating ladders of opportunity and enabling social mobility is the only way to guarantee our country’s long-term future economic health and stability. We are blessed here in Westminster to have so many talented and hard-working teachers who share that vision.