I stand as an independent candidate for mayor to try and ensure the issue of education is at least on the table. As a product of the local state education system, proud Bristolian and experienced local teacher I have watched as state education has become less and less a focus for Bristol’s elected representatives.
Two messages repeated over and over now appear to be an established truth. The first, school performance has never been better, the second, there is nothing that can be done locally as schools are outside of local control.
Convenient truths for elected representatives.
Neither of these messages are true, yet have metamorphosed into convenient truths for elected representatives. All have embraced these falsehoods viewing it as an opportunity to advocate responsibility for education to those who run faith schools’ academies and more recently free schools.
GCSE results in Bristol have plateaued in the last four years, and results dropped in 2015. Huge achievement gaps remain between certain groups of children and certain schools; both are rooted in family affluence.
Children from more well-off families achieve well, children growing up in poverty do less well. Schools who admit from affluent backgrounds do well, those who admit from poorer backgrounds do less well – hardly a revelation is it?
Local authorities retain many duties – examples include ensuring children have a school place, coordinating and influencing admissions, safeguarding, supporting those identified as having additional educational needs and children in care.
March this year saw a heated exchange between councillor Hibaq Jama and the elected mayor George Ferguson during the last full council meeting before May. In this Jama rightly pointed out that there are children living in her ward for whom the current educational journey is one of failing primary to failing secondary to failing further education college.
Jama’s remarks were jumped on by the mayor accusing her of ‘playing the race card’ making reference to race relations as opposed to educational underachievement, the issue she raised. This exchange has subsequently become framed in one of race rather than what this is actually about – poverty.
Underachievement in education is rooted in poverty. A child’s racial background is a branch of the tree; it interplays with disadvantage of socio-economic background due to Bristol’s demographics.
Other branches include gender; white boys from backgrounds of poverty also fail to achieve their potential like young people who don’t fit the sexuality box of heterosexual.
Educational achievement is nuanced, involving overlapping and interrelated barriers. Race is one, having a special educational need or emotional and mental health difficulty are others – but all are accentuated when the home environment provides a backdrop of poverty. Poverty forms the trunk of this educational underachievement tree.
Bristol has one of the most socially segregated state sectors in the country. At eleven the biggest indicator of which state school a child attends is dictated by socio-economic background – recent years has seen this creep into the primary sector with the opening of the Dolphin and Cathedral Primary Schools separating children on the basis of affluence from age four.
If we are ever going to truly tackle inequalities that have cursed Bristol for so many decades we need to bring our children together in school.
Children do not leave their life experiences at the school gates. It forms part of the social, economic and educational capital feeding the school ethos. Children from affluent families being concentrated in schools with other children from affluent families is as damaging for them as concentrating children from backgrounds of poverty it’s just that educationally the affluent children still achieve.
Research by the Sutton Trust demonstrates this is not the case for their less well-off peers the sum of the social, economic and educational capital that helps create school ethos is simply lower in schools dominated by children from backgrounds of poverty.
The next generation deserve to be educated alongside others who will be their college, university, work and life colleagues. It is our duty as adults to create a system that enable them to better understand the life experiences of all their peers.
Elected representatives need to acknowledge the commonality of the impact of poverty on the lost potential for so many of Bristol’s children, come together and start holding to account schools that have happily filled their classrooms with the children of the affluent and then been held up to the teaching profession, public and the media alike as models of educational excellent – it is anything but.
Changing the nature of school cohorts to ensure intake better reflects the reality of the existence of poverty must be the foundation stone of any policy adopted by the next Mayor aimed to reduce inequality and increase social mobility.
Without it, the next generation will remain being educated in an unrealistic echo chamber with others that reflect only their own lived experiences, reinforcing existing social divides.
If children don’t mix when they are four and 14 they won’t mix when they’re 40. The current school structure perpetuates political misunderstanding of the trunk of educational underachievement and retains the possibility of young people’s school experience being used as a pawn in political point scoring just before elections.
Christine Townsend is an independent candidate for Bristol mayor.
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/