Opinion with district councillor Mark Hopkinson: Our children, families and schools deserve better

Cllr Mark Hopkinson

I’m a teacher by profession, I went to primary and secondary school in Ramsgate myself and now my child and stepchildren go to state schools here in Thanet too. So it really matters to me how our local schools are doing – we have great schools and teachers but I’m afraid I think the system can and should be a lot better than it is. This matters now more than ever given the long periods of lockdown we’ve been through over the last year.

As a teacher I’ve seen the curriculum get narrower over the last few years: children have fewer options about what they can do at school with more and more emphasis and pressure put onto the “core” subjects (English, Maths, Science). Schools struggling with budget pressures sometimes cut back on the creative subjects like music and drama – or get rid of them entirely. It’s a really damaging message to lots of kids whose talents lie in these areas. We also should remember we have one of the world’s best creative industries in this country: we should encourage our children to feel confident that they can grow up to contribute to it.

Another major issue is getting provision right for families with children who have Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND). In 2019, Kent County Council (who administer SEND services) was found to be letting a lot of families and children down . The big problem then was that the service was not being run based on what these children and families need: parents were “overwhelmingly negative” about the services. KCC do have a SEND strategy in place to tackle these issues: it is essential that listening to parents, children and schools needs to be front and centre of implementing this.

I also think we should support schools to remain or return to Local Authority control wherever possible. I don’t believe academisation (the alternative to Local Authority control) has worked for our children, parents, and schools. Academies tend to reduce the accountability of schools to parents and certainly to local authorities. A huge amount of money has been wasted on administration costs in creating what is now a confusing and fractured landscape. Academies also ultimately drive down pay and conditions for school staff and increase stress. That’s not good for our children in the long run.

We’re one of the few areas left in the country that still uses the controversial selective system. We can rightly be proud of our grammar schools and non-selective schools. Grammar schools are fantastic for children that can access them. But the problem is that most of our children can’t. Of course we have to cater to children’s various strengths and talents: but the system of dividing kids up so dramatically on the basis of a test when they are 11 years old (usually 10, in fact!), is brutal and unnecessary – and there are also major issues with the fairness of this way of dividing children. That’s why most of the country doesn’t have this system. It also contributes to the excessive testing we have in this country which, in my view, means teachers and children are often more worried about passing exams than they are about enjoying learning and developing skills.

Finally, I think it’s so important not to see children first and foremost as a “problem”: this is a trap we often fall into. Yes, there are problems with anti-social behaviour and this is not acceptable. But we’re also responsible for making sure children in our community feel good about the place they live, feel like they have opportunities here and things to feel proud of.

There are no easy solutions but there are a few important things we can do. For one thing, we can encourage and promote extra-curricular activities in and out of schools. And as well as supporting schools, we can encourage kids to develop skills and talents in the things they love in community groups and organisations like the fantastic Pie Factory in Ramsgate. Schools don’t exist in a vacuum and they can’t solve all our problems. They work best when we see them as part of our overall community.

As a Thanet District Councillor for Sir Moses Montefiore ward in Ramsgate, you can get in touch with me about these issues or any other council related business at cllr-mark.hopkinson@thanet.gov.uk.

Cllr Hopkinson is a member of Thanet’s Labour Party