Leeds education leaders warn it will take a ten year strategy to halt detrimental effects of schools system

It could take ten years to fix systematic problems in the education system that have been failing disadvantaged children for decades warn education leaders in Leeds.

By Emma Ryan
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 6:00 am

Too much focus on league tables and exam results, teachers being forced out of the profession and a lack of understanding about the different backgrounds that children in our schools come from is creating the perfect storm for a situation that pushes already disadvantaged children further behind, says the chief executive of Leeds based charity SHINE, which campaigns to fight education inequalities for disadvantaged children and communities.

Meanwhile, Leeds City Council's education spokesperson, Coun Jonathan Pryor has branded the current education system "detrimental" as he joins a national task force set up by the Labour party to address education beyond the COVID pandemic.

As schools reopened last week following a third national lockdown, which saw classrooms closed for nine weeks this time, debate has turned to how children and young people catch up with measures ranging from exam cancellations to calls for summer schools.

Fiona Spellman, chief executive of SHINE based in Leeds.

However, Fiona Spellman, chief executive of SHINE, told the Yorkshire Evening Post in an exclusive interview that the obsession with statistics, performance and league tables would only push disadvantaged children and young people further into failure.

She said: "What we have had for many years is a short term accountability focused system. Schools have been under increasing amounts of pressure for exam results and what they have been held accountable for. There are children for who that system does not serve well because they have other issues. The reality is, the pandemic did not cause education inequality and just because schools have reopened it does not mean it will go away. There is an opportunity to look at it differently."

Ms Spellman called for a 10 year vision for education, with greater focus on early years and parental input before children even start primary school, understanding that not all children start school at the same level socially or academically and more focus on the professional development of teachers who know students and communities better than national policy.

She explained: "It is about kids leaving school with fundamental reading and numeracy skills, but it is about understanding not every child arrives with the same starting point and experiences. If we don't intervene to put in place that support for children we know are at risk of failing all we are really doing is repeating the same mistakes and challenges that have happened for decades. It feels as if the system has been stuck for some time in a short term mode of thinking."

More focus should be placed on different ways of learning and assessment in schools.

Research show that if schools were measured on the Progress 8 score - which takes into account progress pupils make between leaving and starting at school - rather than results and statistics, then the best school in the country is actually in Bradford. Ms Spellman said schools need to stop being labelled as failing if they are based in challenging areas and a strategic focus on early years care would mean less challenges for schools to pick up.

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Ms Spellman said: "It has been clear that things that have worked really well have been done at local level with teachers and schools responding to communities. They are best placed and really understand the issues.

"A lot of the education systems don't have much time for teachers to access training and development. One of the things that is shown to retain great teachers is the opportunity to learn and develop. We could make it less about attainment targets but more about upskilling and supporting those already in the profession - otherwise recruitment targets just go up because we are losing talented people. For various reasons, they leave. We focus a huge amount of effort and money into recruitment - but not looking at why we have to."

The sentiments are being echoed at national level and debate this week, at the first meeting of the Labour’s Bright Future Taskforce, also centred around a move away from the traditional model of education.

Coun Jonathan Pryor has been invited to sit on the group, set up in response to what is says is a lack of a coherent plan from the Government as to how children will recover lost learning and lost experiences.

He said: "A lot of the discussions were in terms of the recovery from COVID being short, medium and long-term. Short term is making sure children are safe and well, physically and mentally. Long term it is looking at education as a whole in this country. Are our children going through the system and leaving school with the skills they need for the rest of their lives? COVID has created new problems but it has also shone a light on existing problems.

"We need to start recognising that children and people have different skills and talents. Some may be incredibly good at one thing and not another and some learn in different ways. We need to stop looking at university as the holy grail and everything else as less and that children need to follow where their passion and skills take them.

"We have seen in Leeds the detrimental effect when there is an obsession with league tables rather than individual children and that can lead to detrimental behaviours from schools being forced by the government and Ofsted to see where they are in the league tables as their prime focus. If we break that link and focus on the whole child it will lead to better outcomes."

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