Bishop of Newcastle on role of education in improving social mobility in the north-east

“…she went away to university but then, crucially, returned to give back to the wider community the benefits of the education that she had received. We need more people like her—people not using their education to escape from the area, but realising that with well trained minds and warm hearts they have much to give for the common good..” – Bishop of Newcastle

The Bishop of Newcastle gave a speech in a House of Lords debate on 13th March 2014, tabled by the Education Minister Lord Nash.

 The debate title was: ‘that this House takes note of the role of primary and secondary education in improving social mobility.’

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle:

14.03 Bishop of NewcastleMy Lords, I, too, welcome this debate about the role of primary and secondary education in improving social mobility, and I want to speak from my experience as a bishop in the north-east of England for the past 16 years.

The north-east faces serious and significant challenges. Despite having the best record of exports of any region in the country, we have a higher level of unemployment than any other region, particularly youth unemployment, and significant and intractable levels of poverty.

Before I went to the north-east, I served as Bishop of Kingston upon Thames, and the differences are huge and stark. It has been like living in two very different countries, two very different worlds. Social mobility is a much trickier and more complicated concept than it might at first sight appear. We have always to remember the distinction between relative and absolute mobility, but in everyday understanding of the term, I use it to refer to the opportunity for individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to move on in the world. It is about closing the attainment gap between the results achieved by children from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to children elsewhere. The relatively newly formed north-east local enterprise partnership has put schools at the heart of the strategy for economic development of the north-east. It calls for a north-east challenge modelled on the success of London Challenge. However, schools cannot do it all. They can be part of the solution, of course, but there has to be a wider and more integrated response.

In my diocese we have more than 50 Church of England schools. Most are primary or first schools which do very well. Indeed, all across the north-east, at the early years foundation stage the children achieve a good level of development—slightly below the national average, but not much. Furthermore, our primary schools have been judged by Ofsted to have some of the best leadership in the country, and results at the end of key stage 2 seem to support that. However, performance in our secondary schools is not strong—what someone has described as the north-east conundrum. Perhaps that is hardly surprising given the nature and reality of the social context beyond the school gate, where 18 to 24 year-olds experience much higher levels of youth employment than anywhere else. It is quite hard to convince some young people that education really matters.

Just for a moment I want to take your Lordships with me to south-east Northumberland, a former coal-mining area clustered around the famous town of Ashington, home of the Pitmen Painters, and Jackie Milburn, Jack and Bobby Charlton and Steve Harmison. Several years ago I was asked, and I asked myself, “What is the single most important thing we can do for the young people of this area? What is the one thing that would do most to transform the lives of these young people, their families’ and their community?”. The answer was to provide the very best kind of school and education that we could. This led to the birth of the Northumberland Church of England Academy, where the diocese of Newcastle and the Duke of Northumberland worked in partnership with the help of the Government to establish this new school. We had to raise £1.5 million to found an academy in those days. It is the largest academy in the country, located on five different sites, serving 2,500 children aged from three to 18. The school has within it a wonderful centre for 100 children and young people with severe and multiple disabilities and special educational needs. I am as proud of the care and the commitment shown by the staff and of the development of those young people there as of anything else that we do—even though, of course, that never ever shows up in school league tables.

More than one-half of all the children in the academy receive free school meals; 47% of the children there are officially defined as living in poverty. There is real deprivation all around. And yet last year half of our young people in the upper sixth—I still cannot get used to calling it year 13—went on to university, one-quarter into apprenticeships and the rest either into further education or some kind of employment. Three-quarters of our 16 year-olds now stay on into the sixth form and, crucially, parental engagement with the school has increased significantly. School attendance is improving, the teaching quality is getting better and progress is moving towards the national averages.

The academy is charged with being a catalyst for change in the community. That is a very big challenge, but it has transformation of the community at its heart. It is about beginning to change the culture and developing children who are well educated in the broadest sense, young people who are resilient, creative, articulate and socially engaged. Education is the only means I know to help social mobility and to begin to break down some of the barriers that hold young people back. To build an aspirational culture that values, encourages and equips every child it has to permeate all that we do, so that we can overcome the social background of disadvantage in which our children find themselves and enable each and every one of them to be the best that they can possibly be. Last year, pupils eligible for the pupil premium outperformed their ineligible peers in GCSE maths, a small indication perhaps that a young person’s background need not hold them back and that, when our schools get it right, we can overcome disadvantage and transform both lives and communities.

So what conclusions do I draw? If our schools are to be successful in transforming communities facing adversity they will need to be supported by a whole and committed network of other groups, including local business, local government, the arts, churches and other local institutions. Partnerships are absolutely vital, whether they be with, say, the Army—which has led to the Combined Cadet Force being established in the academy last year and allied to the Coldstream Guards—or with other schools elsewhere, including independent schools. We need to continue to find new ways of building new networks which will successfully work in harness with our schools.

While good attainments and high-quality qualifications are crucial, we have also got to develop character, confidence, resilience and spiritual development as well as academic standards. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, we need clear pathways and encouraging support for young people as they make key decisions about their future. Imagine how hard it is for the bright young girl or boy who is the first in their family ever to consider applying for university to make the kind of choices that will affect the rest of their lives. I know about that from personal experience because I was such a person once upon a time myself. Guidance and good advice are crucial.

This country has some of the very best education institutions in the world and some of the most able and dedicated teachers. Here I join the Minister in paying tribute to our teachers, many of whom are working heroically by almost always going the extra mile, sometimes working against the odds, and yet not feeling as valued and appreciated by the rest of us as they should. We must not underestimate the challenges we face if we are to unlock the potential of every single child so that they have the widest opportunities to become the best they can be. They, like we, can then give back to our own society.

A few weeks ago noble Lords would have found me in the miners’ welfare in Ashington. It is a community centre that is open seven days a week and it is superbly led by a very able young woman. Originally from Ashington, she went away to university but then, crucially, returned to give back to the wider community the benefits of the education that she had received. We need more people like her—people not using their education to escape from the area, but realising that with well trained minds and warm hearts they have much to give for the common good. Fortunately, resilience and a strong sense of local identity, together with shared communal values, are still a strong feature of life in the north-east. To build on them with the best kind of schools we can offer is the way to bring hope for the future, both for individual young people and for their communities, and indeed hope for us all.


Lord Nash: [extract]….The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle spoke eloquently and movingly about the success of the Northumberland Church of England Academy. I agree entirely with him about the importance of links with business, professions, the forces and the wider world. All schools should provide their pupils with a direct line of sight to the workplace…

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