DAVID RUFFLEY: Students compete in a global market

Column by David Ruffley MP
Column by David Ruffley MP

Whatever your view about local teachers taking strike action, we can all agree on one thing. School funding should get to the classroom and pointless bureaucracy piled on teachers for decades must be cut.

In Bury St Edmunds, Thurston and Stowmarket the transition from three tier to two tier is proceeding, so that we get in step with the rest of the county. It will take a little time for this to feed through into higher pupil attainment.

Parents say to me increasingly that they want higher standards in Suffolk. In 2013, 84% of children in Suffolk primary schools made the progress expected of them in reading (the national average is 88%), 89% achieved progress in writing (national average 92%) and 81% achieved progress in maths (national average 88%).

In Suffolk secondary schools just under 55% of pupils achieved five or more GCSEs graded A* to C, including in English and maths, which compares with just over 60% across the rest of England. When it comes to A-levels, Suffolk is closer to the national average: 12.1% of students in England achieved A-levels at grades AAB or higher; in Suffolk 11.8% of students did the same.

But Suffolk’s students will not just be competing with those across the rest of the country. We live in a globalised trading environment, an interdependent world in which many emerging economies are after our jobs and trade.

I looked up the OECD report this week that places the UK’s maths attainment on the same level as the Czech Republic, Latvia and Portugal but significantly behind countries like Estonia, Poland and Vietnam.

In the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao, between 24% and 55% of students could be considered ‘top-performers’ in maths. In the UK, this figure was just 11.8%. Reading scores in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, are much higher than ours. Liz Truss, pictured, neighbouring MP and Schools Minister, says that shows why we must embrace some teaching ideas from abroad. I think she’s right.

There is already change afoot. Suffolk parents ask me whether current reforms to schools – like Aacademy-status and free schools – are going to raise Suffolk school standards.

Of the 25,742 schools in England, only 174 are free schools and 3,980 are academies. So they are well in the minority at present.

That said, I have not had one free school application in my constituency, though there is an Academy Trust in Bury of one upper, two middle schools, and two primary schools. They are the only academies across the Bury–Thurston–Stowmarket area, and they went academy initially to preserve their three-tier structure, though now the talk is of an ‘all through school’ concept.

The question many parents still ask me is whether, if they send their child to a four-11 primary and start at an 11-18 secondary school in the town, can they apply to get into the Academy Trust’s County Upper?

The failure to get a clear answer to this (and related practical questions) has led me to meet with Michael Gove at the Department of Education. He has put me in touch with the new Regional Schools Commissioner for the East of England, Tim Coulson, and I will meet him in Bury St Edmunds this month to sort out how our two-tier schools can better interact with the Academy Trust for the benefit of parents.

A great state education, free at the point of use, is critical to our country’s economic future in the 21st century. It is one of the most pressing social challenges facing us in our part of Suffolk. On that we can all surely agree.