Who knows best? Effective policy making for coastal and rural schools.

We are delighted to share FED Executive Team Member, Jo Malone’s, reflections on our recent FED North event in Blackpool. If you are in the north, you can join our regional hub, FED North, currently chaired by Karen Duffy from Manchester Met University and Peter Hudson, Chair of the North West Primary Heads Association.

On a cold and wet Wednesday in March, the FED went to Blackpool. We ventured to this seaside town to listen to a broad range of stakeholders from coastal, rural and small regions in the north of England, about their lived experience of the education system, and to interrogate what the policy needs are for small, rural and coastal schools and colleges. Blackpool is not a million miles away from two large mayoral regions with certain devolved educational powers and funding. However, most of what happens in Blackpool’s schools and colleges comes down the line from Whitehall. What we went there to understand were the specific regional and local challenges when it comes to dealing with some of the current pressing, seemingly intractable issues facing education. Our themes were focused on socio-economic disadvantages, cultural isolation, workforce recruitment and retention, and post-16 pathways. Is central policy fit for purpose in these different contexts? Would regions like these benefit from greater devolution?

While the weather was miserable, as it is wont to be in Lancashire in March, we enjoyed a very warm welcome at the lovely St George’s School, courtesy of the CEO of Cidari Trust, Peter Ashworth. The event brought together school and college leaders, parents, business leaders, community interest groups and charities, academics, the inimitable Frank Norris, and even a former MP.

So what did we learn? Well firstly, there are plenty of exciting interventions and projects already happening in some of these areas, which are having a transformative impact on the lives of children and young people. For example, the incredible work being done with The Morecambe Bay Curriculum, in partnership with Lancaster University, which takes a community-curated, place-based approach to learning, empowering young people to be change makers, especially on the topic of sustainability. One parent mused whether a benefit of being situated in a rural area was that there were opportunities to be a bit more radical, flying under the radar. For many of the regions represented at this event, and especially from those from Blackpool, there was a very palpable sense of pride. We got the sense that there was a laser focus on tackling inequalities with a special focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable. There is a lot of work being done in Blackpool around Looked After Children, as well as projects to support and inspire the town’s 1200 plus young carers.

The challenges are immense. Blackpool, and other regions represented at this consultation, of course, share the same national challenges as the rest of the country in terms of dealing with NEETS, the housing crisis and wider cost of living issues, with digital poverty, a skills shortage, SEND, and underfunding. However, there are region-specific issues which layer on top, or lie alongside these national issues, meaning that central policy needs to be adapted to meet these local needs. Here are some examples…

Post-16 pathways are limited in both coastal and rural regions by virtue of infrastructure. A student in a coastal area has half of the opportunities that a student will have in an inland town or city by virtue of the fact that you are working with a half radius. Whereas other regions have a full circle of options when it comes to further education, the seaside student has 50% of these as the other half circle is the sea. We will come back to this issue later. In rural areas there are some improvements with free transport but services can be unreliable and infrequent. It may well be the case that it is just too difficult for a 16 or 17 year old to get to the provider’s establishment to do the course.

In some areas, there is a real issue with ‘brain drain’. Up here they call it leaving the valley. This is a two-fold problem in that the academically brightest leave and at the same time businesses struggle to recruit fresh talent to the region. The knock-on effects of this being huge in attracting businesses to the area. A further consequence of this is that the range of apprenticeship options are then limited. All in all it’s a vicious circle of ever decreasing opportunities. Areas like Southport, Dr Lybeck explained, are taking a radical and creative approach to this problem involving young local talent in rejuvenation and regeneration projects in the town centre working in partnership with local schools, colleges and budding entrepreneurs.

Many regions have ambitious Business in the Community plans. Most school and college leaders know about these and are on board with them. However, for some leaders who work within larger, non-regional MATs, they find themselves pulled in other directions by the central MAT team who create centralised policies with little or no concern for localised needs and initiatives.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are significant issues with low aspiration in some of the regions represented in this consultation. Some children come from homes where there is second or third generation unemployment, a sense of hopelessness and complacency alongside a feeling of being stuck with no options to change their lives. We were told this attitude is pervasive among young white men in Blackpool. However, there is a lot being done to challenge this: initiatives in student voice with a strong Youth Council in the town (Bridget Phillipson came to listen to them earlier this year), schools and colleges targeting this demographic to support them in achieving GCSE results which unlock more academic pathways and partnerships with universities within the county, for instance, Lancaster University.

Coastal and rural teachers and leaders can feel isolated from their national peers. This can exacerbate problems facing the workforce nationally in terms of teacher and leadership wellbeing, recruitment and retention, as well as access to CPD including wide communities of practice. Coastal regions also suffer when it comes to teacher recruitment – as mentioned earlier, half their recruitment radius is the sea and sadly qualified merpeople have yet to be found in Morecambe Bay.

With this understanding of the specific challenges facing these regions we turned our attention to recommendations. Here are the top five that policy makers should consider to ensure that small, coastal and rural regions needs are addressed:

  1. Visit! (Bring a brolly, it will be fine.) Policy makers need to come to these areas and speak with leaders, teachers, parents, learners, business leaders and community leaders to understand what their needs are and the issues with implementing some of the policies which are made centrally. The same can be said of MAT CEOs and their executives.
  2. Ofsted need to be trained in understanding the nuances of running small and coastal schools. In three years, not one of these schools has been graded outstanding.
  3. Local regions need their own accountability mechanisms to ensure that everyone working for and with young people work collaboratively, not in competition, to deliver the best outcomes for all children and young people in the region.
  4. Careers education must be improved alongside increased post-16 pathways. An investment could be made in training teachers on the pathways available, beyond the academic, post-16, as well as increased options for these students, which could be created by colleges, universities, apprenticeship providers and businesses working in partnership.
  5. Allow schools more flex in the curriculum so that they can make it more relevant to the learners in their communities. Teachers and their leaders know these needs better than those in Whitehall.

So, to answer our original question, would these regions benefit from greater devolution? From what we heard, FED thinks the answer is yes. Those we consulted with know better than any others the challenges now and in the future, they know their communities inside out, they know which levers to pull, which people and organisations to engage to make things happen. They are more invested in the success of their regions and in the lives of their children and young people. I guess the next question is who or what to devolve to when there is no obvious body like in mayoral regions?

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