Searching for the Hartlepool Promise: One austerity-hit coastal town’s battle for its schools

White working-class children are being let down just as badly in Hackney as in Hartlepool; it’s simply the proportion of them that differs.

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Being able to go to the toilet independently, or hold a pencil, are among the measures of “school readiness” used by Public Health England. The coastal County Durham town of Hartlepool saw, in the latest year for which data is available, three in ten five-year-olds deemed below that expected standard – around 400 children.

Ofsted calculations suggest that it is very unlikely children failing this benchmark assessment will catch up in their later education.

This claim by Ofsted is borne out. The Department for Education figures for the last academic year suggest that three out of ten pupils in Hartlepool aged 11 fell behind the nationally expected standard on the KS2 tests. Again, this was around 400 children.

In the last academic year, six out of ten pupils aged 16 in Hartlepool failed to get a “strong” pass in both their English and Maths GCSEs – over 500 pupils.

On all three measures, the performance of pupils in receipt of free school meals was below that of their more advantaged peers.

There is little merit in making comparisons to other regions, other towns, or national statistics. (As it happens, Hartlepool outperforms the national average on some of those measures.)

The figures are of more interest in absolute terms: hundreds of children are making their way through the system, and being failed by it. In Hartlepool, there are hundreds of children potentially unable to hold a pencil at five, read fluently at 11, or be adequately numerate or literate at 16.

This isn’t a north-south divide, either, as some would have it. Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University tracked the progress of 1.8 million pupils. He found no evidence that schools in the northeast were less effective. It is the socio-economic mix of a pupil body that dictates outcomes, not school effectiveness.

The much-lauded New Labour school improvement programme “London Challenge” was not the success it is painted as. The nominal success of London schools has more to do with the demographics than with the Challenge strategies.

London, in 2016, was the only region where disadvantaged students had a positive score on the new Progress 8 calculations. However, when you look at the performance of white disadvantaged students only, London fares as badly as everywhere else.

White working-class kids are being let down just as badly in Hackney as in Hartlepool; it’s simply the proportion of them that differs.

So, how to constitute a “Hartlepool Promise”, which could be replicated in other towns battling austerity? One that can deliver the nominal successes of the London Challenge, but without simply importing a vast number of students with English as an additional language? One that can deliver actual successes, particularly for the third of children living in poverty in Hartlepool? One that can combat almost a decade of austerity politics, and tinkering with school systems and curricula?

Aiming to devise a “Hartlepool Promise” to ensure learners in the town are best-equipped to live their lives successfully, a group of the town’s educators, governors, school leaders, councillors, council officers and parents gathered with the Hartlepool Fabians on Thursday 20 September. They were joined by Rob Coe of Durham University, Vivienne Porritt of #WomenEd, Stuart Kime of Evidence Based Education (formerly of the DfE), and Lil Collingham-Clark of TeachFirst.

The challenge was to work within the parameters of national policies and frameworks, and to work around the fragmentation of the system resultant from the academy programme.

There were two main strands: working with schools and practitioners to ensure they do their jobs better, and working to tackle the growing poverty and inequalities to make schools’ jobs easier in the first place.

There was wide recognition that, considering the cuts to school budgets, social care and social services, schools were doing an admirable job already. There was wide recognition that the council, facing enormous cuts to the central government grants, were being asked to do more with less.

Local responses to the recruitment and retention crisis were considered, as well as the use of robust evidence-informed practice to maximise the impact of what limited funding there is, the recruitment and training of governors in line with the Nolan principles, Early Years provision, and the mental health and well-being of the town’s young people.

A Hartlepool branch of #WomenEd was formed at the meeting’s close, with a view to supporting women in the workforce being 10 per cent braver, and to ensure the promotion of women better reflects the demographics of the profession at large.

Things are now in motion to launch this “Hartlepool Promise” whereby schools are best-placed to help their children and young people succeed. Depressingly, however, the fact remains that the single biggest determining factor of a child’s education successes is parental income.

Schools should be seen as the litmus test for social mobility and progress towards equality, rather than the engine room. Schools cannot mitigate for society. Alongside the work the town intends to do to improve the quality of education offered, much more work needs to be done to ensure Hartlepool’s young people grow up in an equal and prosperous society, and benefit fully from any and all wealth generated in the area.

Gary Wootton is a teacher and school governor in Hartlepool and founder of the Hartlepool Fabians.