Why we have no faith in a one size fits all solution
Blessed Edward Jones RC High School is in the Denbighshire coastal town of Rhyl in North Wales. The town has seen a dramatic drop in its fortunes over recent years, but now it is bouncing back with a vengeance. The low point for the school came in 2006 when it was put in special measures by Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate. But over the past couple of years, the school has turned itself around, coming out of special measures in 2008. Attendance and attainment are both up.
Since I became acting head in June 2007, and was appointed permanently in June 2008, a new uniform and a new set of rules have been introduced. The school is returning to its glory days when it was turning out success after success - the most famous being former Countdown host Carol Vorderman.
Although Rhyl's fortunes are on the rise, its two high schools are still populated by children from poor areas. Both schools are making real headway in changing the fortunes of their pupils, despite having the greatest percentage of those with special educational needs, English as an additional language, transient, or on free school meals in the whole county.
News of the substantial improvements made at Blessed Edward Jones has spread so fast that parents are now actively choosing to send their children to the school. Year 7 admissions for this September are likely to be double those of last year: there were 71 in 2008 and already 125 for 2009.
The school is most definitely thriving and, given time, it could become a true success story, growing as educational excellence develops. The other Rhyl high school also has a new head and is fast making progress.
Blessed Edward Jones is a Catholic school and very proud of its tradition of welcoming children of all faiths. In the interests of social cohesion and ecumenism, tolerance and respect are actively taught at the school within an ethos of kindness, understanding and love. There is a multidimensional element to prayer and to the school's whole ethos, which parents find both reassuring and desirable.
However, following a report commissioned by Denbighshire council and undertaken by Cambridge Associates, Jane Hutt, the education minister, began a consultation process about closing Rhyl's two high school sixth forms. Instead, all sixth-form provision would be provided at a new college building in Rhyl, acting as an offshoot of Coleg Llandrillo.
The governors, teachers, parents and children of Blessed Edward Jones oppose the plan. While the college delivers value for money 13 miles away in Conwy, there is no guarantee that a satellite in Rhyl would be as effective. Indeed, Rhyl students who have opted to go to college often return to Blessed Edward within weeks, unable to fit into the college structure. If there was no option to return, where would these students go?
There is no doubt that Coleg Llandrillo provides good facilities and resources for young people to study, but there is one thing it can't provide: education with a dedicated faith dimension. This is the very thing that our post-16 learners have actively chosen. If Jane Hutt decides to close Blessed Edward's sixth form, there will be no post-16 education with a faith dimension left in Rhyl, unless the college commissions the school to run a course - and there is no guarantee of that.
Blessed Edward is a "turnaround" school. Surely, the minister should recognise this feat and want not only to support the school in delivering excellence in an area of social deprivation, but also to laud this success by celebrating and rewarding it - particularly when you consider that none of the sixth forms in the Vale of Glamorgan, her own constituency, looks likely to be replaced by an FE college.
The minister should be applauding the fact that, in an area of falling rolls, she has a school where pupil numbers are actually rising. Parents are choosing education with a faith dimension once again. The positive effects this must have on future social cohesion in Rhyl can only be a good thing.
Instead of being subsumed by the college, Blessed Edward's sixth form should be encouraged to collaborate with it - not least because we are demonstrably closing the social gap. As I write, there are no fewer than 26 - and possibly more - first-generation university applicants in our sixth form. No one from these students' families has ever been to university. One student with only two GCSEs but prodigious talent stayed on in the sixth form, gained two As at A-level and went on to university. A college simply does not have the facility to recognise individuality in its early stages in this way.
There is no doubt that our colleges do a good job, but I have yet to buy an item of clothing labelled "one size" that actually fits me. Similarly, college - no matter how competent - is not the best option for all.
Doesn't every single child matter, whether at school or college? Please, minister, let our learners decide and keep the faith.
Catherine Britton, Head of Blessed Edward Jones RC High School, Rhyl.