Last week we heard the wonderful news that Suffolk New College had been assessed as “Good” in all of its categories by Ofsted. The Principal and staff – and of course the students themselves – have worked hard to deal with the issues that had led to the College being assessed as “Requires Improvement” last time. To get a “Good Overall” assessment was a real boost for the College, but to get “Good” in every single category was truly impressive. I am delighted to represent a town where parents can be sure that, if their children want to pursue one of the courses that are on offer at Suffolk New College, they will get a good education.
During the course of the coming year I am confidently expecting that the results at Ipswich Academy will show a similarly impressive improvement. Already the “can-do” ethos of the staff and pupils there is beginning to transform the school into one where all pupils can flourish, whatever their prior attainment, and where there is space for individual excellence too.
Young people are eager to learn, both in academic subjects and in vocational subjects, and I am convinced that with the right education our young people will have at least as good prospects as anywhere else in England. But we still have some way to go. The percentage of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) in Suffolk is still stubbornly higher than the rest of the UK and has risen since last year. The number of pupils achieving A-C* in English and Maths GCSEs is still below the national average, and this is particularly so with sponsored Academies.
So it was not a great surprise to discover that Ipswich has a problem with social mobility and that the key reason for that is the performance gap in our schools. We have some excellent schools in Ipswich, and even in those schools where the results are not quite so good the Head Teachers and staff are making enormous strides in order to give their pupils the best possible education. But there is a serious problem when it comes to the money available, and that makes a real difference to the quality of education that can be provided.
The average school in Ipswich – both primary and secondary – gets about £1,000 less per pupil per year than the average pupil in London – that’s £3,934 for primary school children in Ipswich as opposed to £4,825 in London; and £5,107 for secondary pupils in Ipswich as opposed to £6,285 per pupil in London. And that’s not the whole story. There is some variation between schools in Ipswich in funding per pupil, but the biggest problem for schools is when they are not full. If a school only has three quarters of its places taken up then it does not get any funding for the places that are vacant. The Head Teacher and governors have to decide how to meet the shortfall in funding, and that usually means not employing as many staff as they would like. If we really want to boost the less well-performing schools in Ipswich they need to be given enough funding to recruit all the staff they need.
And it’s not just schools that need proper funding. We need our children to start to learn at an earlier age. Nurseries and Sure Start Centres have already had a huge effect on children that are just now coming up to their GCSEs and I am sure that some of the improvement in results will be down to fewer children being “left behind” right at the start of their lives. So we should be increasing the number of places available, improving the number of hours available, and making sure that places for toddlers are being taken up by the families that need them the most. All of that takes money, and I am deeply worried that the changes the government has put forward for nursery and pre-school places are not properly funded and are already leading to nurseries being closed.
To those who say “you can’t solve the problem just by throwing money at it” my response is “Look at what happened in London”. For decades Hackney was a byword for poor educational results – but it isn’t now! The last Labour government took the very sensible view that those areas with the lowest levels of educational attainment need the most support in order to improve. It worked in London. It’s time to put it into practice in Ipswich.