A Mega Gift to Wirral

The news is through at last that Birkenhead’s independent all-girls’ school has safely made the journey from being independent to becoming Birkenhead’s first academy. What a wonderful gift to what the Cabinet Member for Children, Phil Davies, has called “the family of schools in Wirral”.

There have, of course, been those people who have tried to prevent this wonderful gift being bestowed on young people in Birkenhead. I have opposed them resolutely all along the line.

My support for, and the now-silenced opposition to, Birkenhead having its first Academy rests on clear assumptions on how best we can raise standards in schools. For most of my lifetime the comprehensive argument has won. In theory, it is difficult to find a better line to plug. Children all happily come together from different backgrounds and the outcome is not only greater social harmony, but higher educational attainment.

Forty years later you have to be pretty “determined” to peddle this view. I never accepted it in its heyday, so I am unlikely to give it much support now.

I do not see most social and educational advance arising from a top-down approach trying to enforce standards or structures. Progress is most likely to be achieved when there is a variety of provision and where there is competition between the different suppliers.

My life was changed by winning a scholarship. I wish there were more grammar school places for Birkenhead children. But I am equally clear how, over the past sixty or more years, Governments have failed a huge proportion of young people.

It staggers me that after twelve years of state education all too many young people in Birkenhead can hardly read or write. Many of these people I admire: they come from “homes” which would have probably sunk me.

So while each of us has some responsibility in making the most of our best selves, decades of schooling which fail to get the vast majority of children up to and way beyond the minimum school leaving requirements must be deeply troubling. It certainly troubles me.

Look at our results in Birkenhead, despite the real efforts of our many devoted teachers. If a hospital was advertising that it had a 20 per cent success rate, but that 80% of the operations would fail, none of us would go near that hospital, yet we are still intent that children go to schools with a similar success/failure rate.

This state of affairs is now coming to an end. The Birkenhead High School for Girls will be the first of a number of academies in Birkenhead, and with the academy will come freedom and responsibility.

The structure and Governors of the schools will be different. But given the devotion of teacher in our current schools getting such “modest” results we do need to look seriously at how our schools are organised and what is taught.

The system I grew up in did not fail me, but it did fail a huge number of other young people who were denied a pukka technical education.

Germany has always known the value of very serious technical education for a very large proportion of German pupils. More than that, Germany has built a parity of esteem between technical schools and academic schools.

Now change is at long last coming to Birkenhead schools. We can begin a real debate about planning for success – not a success for say 30 per cent of our pupils. We must surely aim for ensuring 95 per cent of pupils, at least, gain the minimum qualifications needed either to continue their education or to win them a place at work which guarantees over time real increases of wages and salaries.

So three cheers for Birkenhead High School for Girls and their Trustees who have made this key decision. But let the school know that they better not sit on their laurels. As the other new Birkenhead academies are created, there is going to be intense competition for the coveted prize of best school in Birkenhead.



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