I welcome the spotlight that the education secretary is shining on deprivation in coastal areas, and he is right to highlight the educational challenges that exist in the towns along the 5,881 miles of England’s coast. I have three suggestions about what he, and central government, could do to help those of us working in this context to effect a sea-change.
First, designate more coastal towns as "opportunity areas". A lucky few have been cherry-picked, but the net needs to be cast wider. Kent, where I live and work, didn’t make the official opportunity area cut.
Looking at Kent as a whole, it is not hard to see why it hasn’t had the same focus for initiatives and interventions as Blackpool or Hastings. At a county level, there is no glaring sign of educational underperformance, and Kent as a whole has a reputation for being more affluent than much of the rest of England (indeed, the west of the county is).
Disadvantage and coastal towns
High-Speed One is here in Kent, we have some of the country’s best restaurants, and housing prices carry the southern premium. At the same time, the county contains some of the country’s poorest districts and wards – and where are they? Almost exclusively on the coast. In Folkestone, for instance, we serve the Harbour Ward, home to the cool Creative Foundation and a pricey Mark Sargent restaurant. At the same time, it’s home to a high proportion of children ranking in the most disadvantaged band as measured by IDACI, the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index. County lines activity abounds and – according to Kent County Council safeguarding colleagues – it’s the South East’s hot-spot for child sexual exploitation.
Colleagues serving Margate face similar challenges, handling a high number of unaccompanied minors, whilst those working in Ramsgate and Whitstable educate, what I’m told is, England’s highest proportion of looked-after children.
The school system here does not perform as strongly as it does in London, but its aggregated data doesn’t present cause for concern. This is because the minority of schools — mainly grammar schools – secure high performance and that sweetens the overall picture. If you take the grammars out of the data, the county looks pretty different. I’m not grammar bashing – far from it: those on our doorstep have worked hard to include the disadvantaged with an entry test that is more tutor-proof than the main "Kent Test", and grammar/non-selective collaborations and working partnerships are plentiful and productive on all sides.
Encouragingly, Ofsted, it seems, may be sensitive to the nuances, judging by the "good" judgements awarded to high schools here that return Progress 8 scores well below zero, apparently recognising the achievement of leaders in these schools given where children start from. Opportunity area designation – and the energy, investment and attention that comes with it – would undoubtedly help to level the playing field.
The aspiration gap leaves us a POLAR (the participation in higher education in a local area) cold spot, and we need central government to warm us.
Second, it’s poverty of aspiration more than fiscal poverty that needs overcoming on the coast. We can’t overcome this on our own.
What do I mean by this? Yes, there is poverty in coastal towns. It’s not the exclusive preserve of the coast, of course. I say this as someone who has worked in London schools, where the technical disadvantage was some 10 per cent higher than it is in the Kent schools I now lead. Poverty of aspiration, on the other hand, is far more pronounced on the coast.
Thanks to the POLAR data collected by the Office for Students, it is also now, to some extent, measurable. In terms of the proportion of the young population participating in higher education at 18 or 19, every postcode in my patch – Folkestone – ranks as 1, the lowest group of take-up of further education. And yet only 20 miles inland, in Canterbury, every postcode ranks as POLAR 4, the second highest category for FE uptake. Contrast this again with verdant Tunbridge Wells, which achieves the top ranking of 5, the highest decile for uptake of further education at 18 or 19.
It's pretty clear to me that POLAR data would provide central government with a far fairer way of determining which areas should benefit from its largesse, rather than the crude and opaque county-wide performance data.
Widening the pupil premium net
Expand the Pupil Premium to support coastal areas, and throw in tuition remission for teachers that join our mission
Widening the pupil premium net would allow schools to devote even more time to develop the key skill of literacy. This is a real concern in our community, with near half of our students coming to secondary school with a reading age well behind their chronological age. This is why reading is such a key part of our curriculum, but also our pedagogy. At the Turner Free School alone, our pupils are already making incredible progress in their reading – 18 months' progress has been made by some in less than an academic year, giving them the best possible chance of accessing an ambitious curriculum and having the literacy skills that local employers tell us they are looking for.
Now, there’s nothing new in pointing out the anomalies in the national funding formula, but it’s worth pausing to consider that we are pretty much running the whole of Turner Schools with a budget roughly equivalent to what I was working with for a single secondary school in London.
From the start of this academic year up until the end of April, we served 53,000 breakfasts across our trust. This is an investment in setting pupils up well for the day of learning ahead, and showing them and their families that our schools are a force for good in their lives. I believe this to be invaluable, but it is only going to get harder to fund with competing financial demands.
There is no magic money tree, and the nation has many pressing priorities, so this is not a general plea for more money, but simply refining Pupil Premium would make a huge difference.
Continuing Pupil Premium funding after the age of 16 in coastal communities would have a significant impact in ensuring disadvantaged pupils are able to reach their full potential. Now that young people are obliged to stay in some type of formal provision after 16, we need the funding to come along with them.
Funding at post-16 has reduced, dramatically for FE colleges and in schools, if taught hours are under 540 per year, as much as by 20 per cent since 2011, according to some reports. Youngsters in our Trust have asked me if we can make their timetables part-time so they can work part-time; their motivation being so that they can afford to keep studying. It would be easier for us to offer pupils the flexibility to do this if we could run evening and weekend sessions, and as the launch of T levels approaches, the flexibility to enable a balance of learning, working and earning will become even more important. As well as staffing to meet their needs, we need capital support to ensure that our learning facilities keep pace with the times.
I’d also urge the education secretary to consider the argument that the Pupil Premium should go further, catching those who have been in receipt of Free Schools Meals in the past 10 years, not only the past six. So many of the parents we serve work zero-hours contracts and juggle multiple temporary jobs, and the current Pupil Premium threshold doesn’t reliably reach them because the specific terms of eligibility underpinning it shifts, throwing them in and out of suitability.
Finally, financial relief of any sort for teachers, new and experienced, would be hugely helpful in persuading them to join our vital mission. While cheaper than London, housing is still a significant expense in the South, and we lack the funding to make up the difference in salary benefits. A tuition remission scheme, whereby teachers who join schools in coastal communities are relieved of the burden of their student loan fees, would be a real boost for teachers themselves and a boost to our recruitment.
Those of us working in coastal towns had a jolt of hope with the secretary of state’s namecheck, but we now need to feature in a more significant way than just a speech. We may be a POLAR cold spot, but we are hot on the opportunity map.
Jo Saxton is chief executive of Turner Schools