"There were more people to go to Oxford from Serbia last year than from Sunderland."
We were meeting with representatives from Oxford’s outreach programme, OxNet. It was the third year of my time as director of sixth form at Southmoor Academy in Sunderland – and it was this comment that brought home the scale of the problem.
It wasn’t news to me that there was a contrast between Tyne and Wear and the Thames Valley. I’d found that out for myself. Seventeen years ago, after graduating from Oxford with a degree in English Literature, I’d plunged into teaching, first in Oxfordshire and then in London. But after 12 years – and with a young family – I took a leap of faith. I swapped a high-performing comprehensive in Muswell Hill for the challenge of starting up a new sixth-form college in Sunderland – a city I’d visited precisely once. On interview.
“It looks fine,” I said to my wife. “Nicer than I thought.” This was true – although it carries deep scars from the post-industrial decline of the last 40 years. Sunderland has grown on me. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t given me a healthy respect for the difference between North London and the North East.
At a time where Sir Michael Wilshaw can link the Brexit vote with a “divided nation” riven by geographical educational inequalities, it seems not a bad idea to pick apart what that divide looks like on the ground – and what impact that might have on how children are taught, what they see and what might be behind that Oxford statistic.
First, a disclaimer. I worked in two London schools, in Camden and Haringey, so I can’t claim to speak for them all. Nor do I know all there is to know about Sunderland. But I do find myself thinking – heretically – that maybe, in some ways, I might know more than Sir Michael…
When I turned up, on my first teaching day, I had certain expectations of the North. I expected grimness. I expected a level of behavioural challenge I hadn’t experienced in a while. I expected kestrels.
What I actually got was an environment that felt far calmer and more ordered than the one I’d left.
In Muswell Hill, my school had been non-uniform. It had served focaccia. Pupils had a habit of slouching towards lessons with an amused nonchalance – and in some cases, a sneer of cold command. Southmoor was much more of a return to the stereotypical “school” of blazers, bells and deference. I stepped into the place in my best metropolitan interview gear – a nice Paul Smith linen number – only to be told first to borrow a tie and then to “go to Marks and Spencer and get yourself a proper suit”.
But that didn’t mean a world of harsh discipline and rigid rules. It was more like an old-fashioned family, where teachers were a parent figure rather than a sibling or a friend. Even now, if I want to describe the key quality of our sixth form, I cite the fact that 90 per cent of students voluntarily pay to come to a Christmas party with their teachers. Try making 17-year-olds in London share a social event, let alone do the Macarena in unison at the end of the night.
And as for life-affirming birds, it did have some terrifying seagulls that lingered over the yard, ever ready to swoop on a leftover sandwich, but any plucky Northern kid trying to befriend one of them was asking for a tetanus jab.
Interestingly, as I got to know the school, one of the key differences in the feel of the place was quite simply space. I had never worked in a school with a surfeit of classrooms. In my first school, we’d had three rooms shared between eight English teachers. I’d never had my own room before.
There was a disturbing story behind this. Schools in Sunderland have experienced falling pupil numbers for several years. The population is declining – and with funding for schools allocated per head, so is the money in the education system. Southmoor is lucky to be bucking the trend, but it has made for a far more precarious environment.
Unlike London, you can’t just count on the ever expanding population to fill your school places, so the competition between schools tends ever more to the cut-throat. That has implications for what can be offered in terms of extra-curricular opportunities, inter-school relationships, and simply the level of resourcing.
Of course, competition in schools is not just for pupils. The number-one resource is teachers and the employment market was another instructive contrast.
In both London schools, there were two Oxbridge graduates in the English department alone, with as many as seven or eight across the school. The range of backgrounds was vast, from Australians supply teaching their way around the world, to first generation immigrants, to young teachers who’d rocked up in London from every part of the UK.
In Sunderland, I would estimate 95 per cent of teachers to be from the North East.
This probably isn’t a revelation. It makes sense. And there are huge advantages, not least stability and common cultural ground. But when a lot of teachers also went to university in Sunderland – or at least in the surrounding area – it narrows the experience of pupils.
When I turned up, I felt like a circus freak. My voice, my clothes, my beard and my background, all marked me out. It didn’t help that my employers seemed intent on telling everyone at every turn just how different I was. Sometimes it seemed my name was “Sammy Wright, Oxford graduate”.
Why should it be weird to be an Oxford graduate working in a Sunderland comprehensive? If more people went away to the best universities, maybe more people would come back from them, too. And maybe we might end up with a region that feels less distanced from the political decisions that affect us all.
Not so different
After all, it isn’t just the staffing that is less diverse. Both the Camden school I worked in and my current school in Sunderland have approximately the same level of disadvantage – and the same Ofsted rating – but only one of them was entrusted with the education of the children of two members of the Blair government. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to think of reasons why the problems of London schools are higher up the priority list.
Ultimately, there is more that is similar than different, but we do need to acknowledge those differences and really dig down into what they are.
Southmoor is now a hub for the OxNet programme. We are looking to try to change the expectations of students round here. In one sense, the whole thing is absurd, of course – my students in the North are the same as those I had in the South and I’m pretty sure West and East would concur. Students are students. They are filled to bursting with a disturbing mix of potential and potential disaster, wherever you find them.
But the reason the work needs doing is perhaps the saddest contrast of all. When I worked in London, I seemed to spend a significant amount of time trying to convince students to moderate their ambitions a little. But in the North East, the challenge seems to lie in making them see how bright their futures could be – and how attainable.
So maybe we can start by moving beyond the kestrels, and seeing the North for what it is: another place to find talent.
Sammy Wright is director of sixth form at Southmoor Academy, Sunderland