Home Page New school year starts with a new educational landscape 30/08/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

When the schools re-start next week we shall see the beginning of a new educational landscape in the Haverhill area. Of course, that in itself is nothing new because every school year nowadays seems to see the introduction of new structures.

We have seen changes to specialist ‘colleges’ and then to partnerships for our two upper schools and an academy for one of them, and we have seen the long consultation over middle schools, followed by their slow termination. We have seen a lot of money spent on new school buildings as we revert to two-tier education, and even whole new schools being opened.

But when I refer to a new educational landscape I don’t mean the two-tier system itself, but one of the products of it.

It is not often that this part of so-called ‘sleepy’ Suffolk is in the vanguard of national events, so, had it not been for the abolition of the middle schools under the changes from three-tier to two-tier which Suffolk County Council decided to pilot in the Haverhill area, it is unlikely, I think, that anyone around here would have been committed enough to start a free school under the new Government initiative.

But it coincided with Clare’s efforts to retain secondary education within the town. And what was manna from heaven for the Clare activists presents a huge challenge to the Haverhill educational system.

It remains to be seen how successful this free school in Clare will be – one of the first 24 in the country – but it doesn’t take much to see that it could have a serious effect here.

Until the change back to two-tier, the pupils who attended Clare Middle School chose whether to go on to Sudbury or Haverhill, mostly dependent on where they lived. The ones that came here, mostly attended Samuel Ward, and that would include those from the villages within Clare Middle’s catchment.

But with full secondary education now available in Clare, there is bound to be competition, and a reduction in the numbers coming into Haverhill. What’s more, in the past these children have often been among the higher achievers.

The funding of schools is immensely complicated, and it is not simplified by the new academy status of some of them, but in very general terms fewer students usually leads to smaller resources being available.

We now await developments. It is a new landscape and I’d make a little bet that even those at the epicentre of the earthquake (ie the heads of the schools) do not know for certain how it is all going to pan out.

The encouraging thing for everyone involved is that exam results continue to improve. It doesn’t seem to matter how much change is dumped on schools, the results still seem to get better and better, so one must assume this will go on under the new system.

There are some (quite a few, actually) in Haverhill who have so little faith in either of our schools that they go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their children are educated elsewhere – at Linton Village College, or at the Catholic schools in Bury St Edmunds. We became aware of how many there were when the axing by Suffolk County Council of free transport to certain schools was threatened.

But recent inspections and exam results have shown the Haverhill schools to be very successful and improved out of all recognition in recent years, so theirs would appear to be very much a minority view.

We are led to believe this is also true of the entire national educational system, by whichever government happens to be in charge at the time, and the exam results are put forward as evidence of this.

And then we have the riots, and other statistics come out, such as the fact that over 60 per cent nationally of boys aged 14 have a reading age of no more than seven. All I can say is that their evident exam successes just a year or two later are some sort of miracle.

In fact, there are a lot of other factors at work in all these statistics, some of which get into areas which one is not allowed to talk of openly nowadays because it constitutes a sort of denigration of the achievements of students.

However good their exam results may be, and however great their achievements, and however capable they may now be of the sort of work the 21st century requires, experience shows that they can’t read as well as their predecessors. I know that because I have seen too many examples of it to ignore.

Maybe it doesn’t matter any more. Maybe there are more important skills than reading, although I, still stuck in the 20th century, cannot fathom what they are.

But if I had a child about to start on the educational road, I would choose the school which I thought was most likely to be able to instil a high reading ability, coupled with a desire to read, because everything else flows from that. Perhaps we will discover which of the local options does best at that over the coming years.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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