“I think we have to find solutions from within this part of the world because our pupils are fundamentally different to those in London.”
So says Mike Parker, director of Schools NorthEast, an organisation encompassing 1,250 schools in the North of England.
His job is to ensure each school's voice is heard both in the region and beyond.
Education in the North East has, at times, made headlines for the wrong reasons.
And today it still has the lowest Progress 8 scores of any region in the country and fewer 18-year-olds attending the country’s top universities than anywhere else in England.
However, Parker is part of a movement that is determined to change this by raising outcomes and ensuring schools in the North East get more credit for what they are achieving.
He is clearly proud to represent schools in the North East, and stresses his links to the region.
“My father was Geordie,” he says. “He proposed to my mum at the Gallowgate End at Newcastle United.”
“There is a strong sense of identity here in the North East”.
But his own upbringing has also given him a broader view.
With his father travelling the world with a career in the armed forces, Parker’s education included international schools in Hong Kong and Kuwait, a spell living in Italy, and boarding at the private Barnard Castle School in County Durham, where he sat his GCSE and A-levels on an RAF bursary.
His route into education came via the newsroom, as he started out working as a journalist in Lincolnshire and the North East, culminating with shifts at the Sun.
Getting Northern voices heard
But it was the connections he made as business editor at the Northern Echo, based in Darlington, that helped shape the next phase of his career as he left journalism to work in communications for the North East Chamber of Commerce.
“It was here that working for networks of people really got under my skin” he says.
“You realise one single voice can be powerful but it's only powerful in its own space and actually collectively bringing all those voices together can be far more impactful.”
Today Parker translates this approach into education and admits to getting a "buzz out of being able to help people make a difference".
Since 2015 he has been the director of Schools NorthEast, the only schools-led regional network of schools in the country.
And he is in the role at a what could be a pivotal time.
Two months ago education secretary Damian Hinds announced that £24m funding would be spent on school improvement through a new Opportunity North East programme.
Parker and Schools NorthEast had been making the case for the Opportunity Area programme – launched by former education secretary Justine Greening – to come to the North East.
None of the first 12 areas was based in the region but now the government has committed to a North East region-wide programme of support.
Part of this will provide targeted support to under performing secondary schools, and Parker is keen for the impact of the programme to be felt across the North East.
“We will be doing our level best to ensure that Opportunity North East delivers real success for all schools in the region and not just those that are pinpointed by the DfE as most in need.
“Its got to be a rising tide that lifts all ships not just the ones which have the spotlight on them," he insists.
“There is a lot of debate in the sector at the moment around ethics and transparency, around decision making both at school level and system level that then has a knock-on effect on other schools around you. Opportunity North East needs to rise above that.”
Sharing what works
Parker highlights this as one of two main priorities for Schools NorthEast.
The other is the launch of a major school improvement programme across the region which will promote the use of evidence of what works.
Around a hundred schools have agreed to be "evidence champions" for Schools NorthEast, who will look to share effective approaches across the region. Parker enthuses about the impact this could have.
“It will allow our schools to really dissect reports that are coming so if the EEF produces a tool kit in a specific area of education, we want to get the schools together to rigorously inspect it and see how we can get it to work for our context.”
The word "context" comes up throughout Parker’s interview with Tes – especially when the idea of a North-South divide in educational attainment is mentioned.
Parker says he was delighted when Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman told the Schools NorthEast summit earlier this year that “she did not subscribe to the view that schools in the North East were somehow disproportionately failing their students”.
Spielman told her audience that the idea of a North-South divide was "oversimplified and misunderstood”.
This was in marked contrast to her predecessor Sir Michael Wilshaw, who in Parker’s words “came up to our summit three years ago and asked us why we couldn’t be more like London”.
He said Spielman’s intervention was the single most important statement made on school standards in the North because “it was the first time a national figure in authority had recognised that context is important”.
“Our context is that 94 per cent are white, of which the vast majority are working class or unemployed. I would describe them as white disadvantaged, so we have got to get incredibly good at making sure that our focus is raising outcomes that are comparable or better than those in other parts of the country," Parker says.
“But to get there our children have got to go on a much greater journey because of the poverty, and because of the communities around them which may not be set up to support them through secondary education.”
Schools NorthEast was set up in 2007 and now represents more than 1,200 schools in the region. Parker took over as director three years ago
“What I really liked about the organisation was its foundation. The fact that it was created and owned by school leaders. It has grown quite a lot and we are doing far more diverse things," he says.
“I am standing on the shoulders of the people who did the real work, the essential work, the grounding of it. What we have been able to do since I have been here is focus the team beyond engaging with schools to do more practical work.”
As well as launching its own school improvement programme, it has also developed a school-led commission on mental health and is launching a campaign to get parents and grandparents to lobby the government for more schools funding.
Parker believes one of the keys to the growth of Schools NorthEast is that it aims to represent all schools in the region. He describes it as a broad church – with members ranging from independent schools to special schools and UTCs.
“Everyone is represented, we are for all schools and all within it are equal. Those are the fundamental principles so leaders engage because they know we are there for them.”
But in a fragmented school system does Parker ever face schools with conflicting interests?
“Tensions are few and far between,” he tells Tes. “Some of the tensions come when there are polarised views in the system. Probably the greatest thing at the moment is the whole debate around exclusions and how polarising that can be within the sector.”
Earlier this year he raised concerns that some schools leaders have about rising exclusions in the North East. But Parker is keen to focus on how all schools in the North East can work together.
“I think we will always start from our fundamental vision which is that we want all children to have the greatest opportunities and the best possible outcomes.”
CV: Mike Parker
- 1985-1993: Barnard Castle School, County Durham.
- 1993-1996: Loughborough University, politics and social policy.
- 2000-2002 Reporter for the Press Association, in Newcastle.
- 2002-2004 Business editor at Northern Echo.
- 2004-2007 Head of PR at North East Chamber of Commerce.
- 2007-2011 Managing director of Stride PR.
- 2011-2015 Head of media and external communications at Home Group.
- 2015 - Director of Schools NorthEast.