We moved to Suffolk sixteen years ago and we like it here a lot. But our first impressions weren’t entirely promising.
We had lived for seven years in the glorious cathedral city of York in a Victorian house situated on the edge of that majestic northern city. It meant that if our young children were desperate for an outing we could navigate a meandering route to the Early Learning Centre via a secondhand bookshop that served great cakes and then the nave of the towering cathedral. It was a mini-pilgrimage that made the whole family happy.
Like most people, the first we glimpsed of Bury St Edmunds was from the A14, heading eastwards. There suddenly was the sugar factory belching steam into a wide horizon.
It was market day and we wandered around a real market in a real market town. There was something unpretentiously authentic about it all.
A few months after starting work as deputy head at what was then called Thurston Upper School, I visited a student on work experience at Marks & Spencerin the Buttermarket.
The departmental manager let me into a secret that in those days, every Wednesday, staff would change the window display to make more visible their best-selling item: the Y-front. We had arrived in Suffolk.
I also found that the young people here had a quirky charm. The History Department used to run an annual field trip to Haughley where there was a legendary bakery. As an edible souvenir, they would bring me back the largest Eccles cake I had ever encountered.
One day, a Year 10 student from one of the outlying villages saw me eating it and asked earnestly: ‘Mr Barton – what’s that you’ve got? It looks like a cowpat in pastry’. My appetite waned.
So yes: we like Suffolk very much.
And, like lots of people, one of the things that surprises me about a county that is so attractive to live and work in, is all the reports that our schools aren’t good enough. Over the past two weeks Ofsted have swarmed like Stormtroopers into primary and secondary schools announcing, bullishly, that they were investigating our supposedly poor standards.
They did the same recently in Norfolk, heading into schools with an apparent determination to show that those of us in education are all complacent or lazy or incompetent.
The reality, in my experience, is that Suffolk doesn’t tick the easy-to-categorise boxes of places like inner city London or Manchester. Our pockets of social and cultural deprivation can more easily go unnoticed or be ignored. It can be a county where it’s difficult to recruit keen new teachers. Too often, when asked where I work, I say Suffolk and see a flicker in my questioner’s eye: ‘where’s that?’ you can sense them thinking.
The state of Suffolk’s educational performance will no doubt come into sharp focus as the county council launches its consultation on reoganising schools in and around Bury St Edmunds. There will be debate about schools structures and the types of schools our area needs. It’s likely to be a turbulent period that will need some very clear educational values at its heart.
It will be a time, too, when we ought to take a look at what other parts of the UK do in their schools, to make sure that we are ambitious to achieve the same standards as them and provide the same opportunities for all our young people.
Many of us believe that there’s something very special about this part of the world. It may be that we are about to have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to develop an education provision which is similarly special and puts Suffolk proudly once again on to the national education map.