'Dear Mr Gibb, you have used the children of Knowsley as an opportunity to score political points'
I don’t know you personally and I don’t believe that you are familiar with my part of the world here in Knowsley. In fact, I am not sure if you have ever been here and that’s why I wanted to get in touch with you.
Fifteen minutes from Liverpool and 35 minutes from Manchester, Knowsley is a place full of opportunity. We are a fundamental part of the Northern Powerhouse – home to major businesses like Jaguar Land Rover and QVC – perfectly located on the region’s motorway network, and with a strong community spirit and drive for success.
Like a lot of other places in the UK, we do, however, face challenges, and raising educational attainment is one of the key issues we are trying to address.
In the latter context, I read with interest and some frustration the opinion piece you recently authored on education in our borough. In your piece, you talked at some length about the education which you believe is being delivered in Knowsley – offering your own views and criticisms of a local system which you believe is failing Knowsley’s young people.
I am not a teacher, but the picture you portrayed (including phrases cut-and-pasted from media reports from six years ago!) certainly wouldn’t get top marks from me. In fact, it seems unfathomable that, as minister for schools, you didn’t bother to take the time to look at the true current situation here before putting pen to paper with outdated “facts” and comment.
Yes, in 2009 we did create brand new school buildings with a view to trying to inspire our pupils and begin the process of transforming education here. I make no apology for this – the new schools were and are fantastic buildings and incredible assets for young people and their communities. But, contrary to the inferences in your piece, we never claimed that new buildings alone would raise attainment and we have been working hard since to improve the quality of teaching and learning which goes on inside them.
In fact, were you to visit one of our secondary schools, I’m sure you would be pleasantly surprised at the traditional teaching styles, which embrace and make use of the very modern settings.
As has been the favoured policy of your government, four of our six secondary schools will be academies by the end of this year and we’re pleased that we have secured partnerships with some of the leading academy trusts in the country, such as the Dean Trust and the Rowan Learning Trust, both of which have good track records in school transformation.
These partnerships are now beginning to bear fruit and we are seeing real and measurable improvement. Lord Derby Academy in Huyton is now part of the North West Maths Hub and is pioneering Shanghai maths in the borough.
Of course, we accept that GCSE results in Knowsley schools are currently far short of where we want them to be. The reasons for this are, of course, complex. We would very much welcome the chance to discuss those issues with you.
Your colleague Nicky Morgan stated on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that for Knowsley children “there isn’t a choice about anywhere else to go to”. That comment demonstrated a rather alarming lack of understanding of our challenges. In fact, due to our geography, local families do indeed have a choice and one of the issues we face is that 43.5 per cent of secondary school age children living in our borough choose to attend schools outside of the Knowsley boundary.
This is a frustration to us, particularly given that our early years and primary education is as good or better than most other areas in the country and an example of where Knowsley is doing well.
Even so, there are promising indications that GCSE performance in Knowsley is going in the right direction. Take a look at the latest results for this year and you will see that pupils educated in Knowsley recorded the biggest percentage increase in results in the whole of the North West and the 18th highest improvement in the country.
And that, as you must very well know, bucks the national trend, which actually showed a decrease in GCSE performance this year.
You indicated in your recent public speeches and interviews that Knowsley was exactly the kind of area, which would benefit from the new National Teaching Service. In that context, it is very difficult to understand why your department has not contacted anybody from Knowsley Council or any of the borough’s MPs to discuss the proposals, or to offer any of the outstanding teachers who you claim to have available. Perhaps you have contacted the borough’s academies directly with this offer? If not, I am led to suspect that, rather than being motivated by the desire to support our schools to make genuine improvements, you simply saw the children of Knowsley as an opportunity to score political points.
One thing of which you should be in absolutely no doubt is that everyone involved in education in Knowsley is fully committed to delivering improvements and giving our young people the chance to fulfil their potential.
As somebody who not only represents the community in my capacity as council leader, but also as somebody whose children and grandchildren have attended Knowsley schools, I found your attack on Knowsley as a borough rather distasteful and opportunistic. As a local authority we have some influence over our local schools but this is ever decreasing in line with your government’s policy, which promotes academy conversion and schools operating as independent entities. It seems rather outdated, therefore, to continue to rank educational performance by local authority area in this way.
In summary, I think your recent comments about Knowsley were poorly informed, so I would like to invite you to come and see us in Knowsley and get a clearer picture of what is actually going on here. We hope that, by gaining an understanding of Knowsley as an area and of the work of the local education system, you will be better informed before making any future public statements about us.
Councillor Andy Moorhead
In response to the letter, a Department for Education spokesperson issued the following statement: “Ensuring every child has the best possible education is key part of our mission to extend opportunity to all. Where a school or local authority fails to meet the standards rightly expected by parents and the government, we will challenge them and give them the support they need to improve.
“The minister has received the letter from Mr Moorhead and will respond shortly.”