Education bosses promise to raise standards - but what does it mean for your child and your family?
Let’s start with a quote.
“If a child wants to be an astronaut when he is eight, why would we want to say ‘there’s no chance of that’? We’d say ‘absolutely - let’s see how we can make that happen’. It is about encouraging aspiration.”
The words of Carl Baker, deputy director of Children’s Services and part of The Blackpool Challenge, an ambitious multi-million pound project to ensure - and I quote - “100 per cent of children progress 100 per cent of the time”.
Bold words but an understandable statement of intent, for it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the key to building a decent society is the education of youngsters.
If they leave school with all the necessary skills and ambitions to do well, the world will become a better place.
I am committed to raising standards of education, it’s what I’ve done all my career
Simples, as that annoying advert might put it.
Problem is, putting that into a practice is incredibly difficult to do, especially in a town like Blackpool where the list of much-publicised social problems is seemingly endless (deprivation, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, below-average life expectancy, to name just a few of the town’s dubious claims to fame).
Perhaps, then, that is why when it came to revolutionising the way its schools are run - for that is what The Blackpool Challenge aims to do - the resort has turned to a woman named in a Sunday Times list of Britain’s 500 Most Influential People.
Sonia Blandford’s official title is - and a deep breath is required before saying this - Professor of Education and Social Enterprise at University College London Institute of Education.
She is one of the country’s foremost voices on education and founder of the hugely successful Achievement for All, a not-for-profit charity that strives to transform the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
In a nutshell she is to education in this country what Neil Armstrong is to space travel: a major player.
And now she faces a major task, for Professor Blanford has been selected to lead The Blackpool Challenge.
To say it has lofty aims is putting it mildly.
Take the opening line of the press release promoting the new venture: “It aims to make Blackpool a place where all children receive a world class education, enabling every child to achieve their best regardless of background, vulnerability or disadvantage.”
‘World-class?’ that seems a big ask - which is the first thing I say to Professor Blandford when we discuss how she plans to transform the Fylde coast into an education tour de force.
“I am committed to raising standards of education, it’s what I’ve done all my career,” answers a woman who is clearly not short of confidence in her own ability.
“Every situation, when you go in at the start, is challenging. If I said I couldn’t do it … well, that’s just not me.
“This is about Blackpool schools working together as a team to improve the whole system.”
So to the nitty-gritty, what exactly is The Blackpool Challenge? Well, it has been created by the council and the Regional Schools Commissioner, has a 20-strong board, and is backed by headteachers in the resort’s 40 schools, plus a further 40 learning centres.
It is a four-year plan, with an initial £1.25m being pumped into the school system when and where it is needed to try and drive up standards.
Further cash - amounting to “millions of pounds”, says Professor Blandford - will be sourced and spent along the way.
But we’d better stop and pause here for a moment. All you’ve read above may lead you to believe the education system in Blackpool is in crisis, a shambles, and that’s why this overhaul is happening.
It is not the case.
The vast majority of schools in the town are doing well, producing results as good or better than the national average. The Fylde coast’s primary schools are the envy of many other regions. So too post-16 education.
Secondary schools, it is accurate to report, are not faring as well - most are rated inadequate.
“But this idea of education in Blackpool being poor is incorrect,” adds Baker, from the council’s Children’s Services.
“We have some very high performing young people in this town and even within our high schools there are some outstanding areas, like the English department at Montgomery and Humanities at Aspire.
“It is about building on that and encouraging excellence.”
The idea is to get all schools to come together - including the academies, which are not under the control of the council - and agree a collective way forward to get the best out of pupils.
The Blackpool Challenge begins in September and will include new ideas like moving away from focusing on exam results - as is currently the case - and towards all children making progress on a weekly basis.
Any teachers reading this are probably already groaning. Yet more work and pressure, they’ll think.
Baker says that won’t be the case. “Teachers should welcome it,” he says. “The incentive to become outstanding, which is our aim, means it will reduce the number of inspections they have.
“A big part of the Challenge scheme is to harness and encourage a love of teaching and to attract new, high-calibre teachers into the town and to reduce the turnover of staff.”
“School improvement isn’t a quick fix,” adds Baker. “But we want to be doing everything to give a child the best possible learning experiences and creating the best possible chances for them in life.”
John Jones is the council’s cabinet member for School Improvement and on The Blackpool Challenge board.
He puts it like this: “It is really important for us that children in Blackpool have the same opportunity as they do in a leafy suburb down south”.
Coun Jones says part of the scheme will include extra work with parents to ensure “they understand the importance of their child’s attending school and behaving” - and dialogue with local business too, so pupils leaving school have better chances of work experience and employment.
Which all sounds great, but to do it in four years ... surely that’s a big ask?
Professor Blandford relishes the challenge - and of being in Blackpool. “I’m going to be completely open about this - before March, when I was asked to chair this scheme, I had never been to the town,” she said.
“But when I came I visited more than 15 schools, met with business leaders, was taken around the streets and saw the houses and the developments on the Prom - and I saw an awful lot of positive things.
“I saw genuinely good practice when I went into the schools, and I loved the sense of pride and tradition the town has.
“Yes I’ve seen some challenges and it is clear there are areas of vulnerability and disadvantage. But I am totally confident that with the support of teachers, parents, business leaders and the wider community, this scheme will succeed.”
There have been other similar schemes in this country already, in cities like Manchester and London.
“But every scheme is unique because it addresses the needs of that particular area,” adds Professor Blandford, who was also at pains to stress that she still teaches in a classroom and has done all her career, so she’s well aware of what does and doesn’t work in schools.
“The most important thing about all this,” she adds, “is the impact it has on the children.
“It’s not about me, it’s about seeing the difference in Blackpool, and I am confident that in four years time we will.”
If she’s right, the whole town - and especially its younger people - will undoubtedly reap the rewards.
But only time will tell whether this is the real deal and will genuinely transform Blackpool’s education system into something envied the country over - or if it’s just yet another well-meaning but misguided attempt to improve schools.
The five aims of the Blackpool Challenge
The Blackpool Challenge, to be implemented in all the town’s 80 schools over the next four years, has five aims:
• To make Blackpool a place where all children receive a world class education, enabling every child to achieve their best regardless of background, vulnerability or disadvantage.
• To ensure every child has local, regional and national employment prospects, where they have the freedom to pursue their chosen career.
• To work together to improve the outcomes for young people through a self-improving education system.
• To ensure strong and inclusive learning communities, build resilient learners and foster supportive relationships between parents, carers and the local community.
• To make all Blackpool schools and settings outstanding through strong leadership, quality teaching and high expectations of learners.