Personally Speaking: New Free School crucial for our city

I have written in this column before about how we need to be more ambitious as a city, this is none more so than for our children and young people.  Every person in our city should have the ability to achieve and be their best. The concept of a ‘job for life’, which was so common in the past which naturally suited honest and hardworking Stokies, is disappearing all around the world.  People will now on average change careers 5-7 times in their working life.


We need to make sure we keep up with the pace of change and are not left behind.  A critical part of this is in making sure local people have the skills to take advantages of new opportunities when they come along. With industries full of exciting new prospects calling Stoke-on-Trent their home, ensuring our young people have the best possible education is vital for the future prosperity of our city.


All credit must go to the work that has seen youth unemployment more than halve over the last decade across Stoke-on-Trent. I must applaud the schools in my constituency which are grasping the nettle and going beyond the call of duty to instil ambition and a broad range of interests and skills in our children. This work is sparking the talent and igniting the potential that will be the basis for our success in the decades to come.  


In the past few weeks, I have taken part in a debate with pupils at Gladstone Primary Academy, joined Weston Coyney Junior School for a Q&A during their tour of the Palace of Westminster, visited the fantastic new exhibition on politics at Sutherland Primary Academy, and opened the new library at Christ Church Primary, Fenton – marking Charles Dickens’ birthday.


The teachers at all our local schools do a fantastic job, not only in teaching our children the curriculum, but also inspiring them to work hard for their futures.  We have seen improving standards across the board and we must go further so that every child in the city is learning in a good or outstanding school. We must continue to push up standards and especially at 16, little more than half of Stoke-on-Trent pupils achieve grades 9-4 in English and Maths GCSE, compared to nearly two-thirds of pupils nationally. Although we have challenges that we might not see in other areas, these can no longer be used as excuses for poor standards, we have many fantastic examples of excellent schools defying those odds.


An undeniable problem we have however, particularly for secondary, is the real lack of school places. In Staffordshire last year, 92% of pupils moving from primary school to secondary school got into their first choice of school.  90% did in Cheshire.  In Stoke-on-Trent, this was only 82%, and dozens of parents contacted me to state that their children were not even placed in one of their three preferences of a school. 


That means more than twice as many children miss out in Stoke-on-Trent than in the rest of the county; every one of the city’s 14 secondary schools is full, and 11 are oversubscribed. Some were left facing a commute across the city into Newcastle and back, each morning and evening, with no realistic bus service to ever get children to school on time. 


This does not create the best conditions for pupils to learn, or for teachers to teach. We must change this, creating more high quality school places that will push up standards. This is no less than our young people and our city deserves. That is why I am delighted to support plans for a new free school, the Florence MacWilliams Academy, on part of the former Longton High School site, run by the Educo Trust. 


I went to see the Secretary of State for Education with other local MPs and the Leader of the Council recently, to make sure that officials in Whitehall understand exactly why we need this new school.  We will be campaigning more over the next few months to make sure this message gets through, and that our city gets the new school it needs.


This article appeared originally in The Sentinel, 24th February 2020.