Thursday was a good day. I awoke from my slumbers to hear the CSJ’s Breakthrough Manchester report leading the news bulletins on Five Live Breakfast. (Aren’t Nicky and Sheelagh great? I could never stomach John Humphrys’ rudeness or Jim Naughtie’s pomposity first thing in the morning.) What’s more, Nicky gave the report a fair hearing, acknowledging Iain Duncan Smith’s serious work on social justice.
Unlike the Labour councillor from Manchester City Council, Nicky’s guests from the city’s hard-pressed communities were not interested in attacking us. They were eager to discuss the pressing issues highlighted in the report. Gun crime is up 10% in the last year. For all the prosperity of the city centre, 30% of working-age adults are on out-of-work benefits – 50% higher than the national average. Only 29% of pupils in Manchester’s schools achieved five good GCSEs (including maths and English) last year, compared to the English average of 46%.
However David Cameron and IDS did not want to dwell on Labour’s failures when they met with local charities at a community hub in central Manchester. The CSJ presented Breakthrough Britain and its proposals for tackling social breakdown. In his speech, David Cameron set out his vision for ‘co-operative schools’ to play a major role in reversing educational failure.
Referring to Breakthrough Britain’s proposal for ‘pioneer schools’, Cameron said he agreed that if a group of local people - parents or teachers or just local residents - wanted to establish their own school, they should be able entitled to take the money the local authority spends on each child’s education to the new school:
"What better way to give parents direct involvement in their school than to give them ownership of it? To make them not just stakeholders, but shareholders - not of a profit-making company but of a co-operative built around the needs of local children?"
Co-operative schools will feature prominently in proposals the party will publish soon to facilitate ‘a supply-side revolution’ in our schools system. The prospect of parents and communities coming together to establish good schools in hard-pressed areas is very exciting. Complacent LEAs that have presided over decades of under-achievement will have to raise their game or watch their empires crumble as parents place children in new state schools outside their control.
In cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and London, I expect black-majority churches to relish the opportunity to establish co-operative schools for their neighbourhoods. There are large, vibrant black-majority churches in many of the urban areas blighted by educational failure.
In the course of my work over the last seven years, I have been privileged to visit hundreds of charities throughout Britain. However none has inspired me more than Tabernacle School in west London. Its founders, Pastor Derrick Wilson and his wife Paulette, lead Tabernacle Christian Centre, a small evangelical church in North Kensington. It attracts around fifty regular worshippers each Sunday.
Ten years ago, members of the church were dismayed by their children’s lack of progress in inner-city state schools. In response, they opened Tabernacle School in 1998 on a shoe-string budget to educate pupils from 3-18. In its early years the small school had a nomadic existence, operating out of six temporary, shared premises in as many years. The Harrow Club, a charity linked to the public school, shamefully evicted the Tabernacle to make way for a deejaying project. Eventually, in 2005, Tabernacle School secured its own building, a former nursery situated between Holland Park and North Kensington.
Today, Tabernacle School is a happy place where children thrive. Its fifty pupils benefit from small class sizes, traditional teaching methods and a broad curriculum. Children are encouraged to take pride in themselves and their country. In good schools, wearing blazers is normal. Each pupil having a mini Union Jack on their desk is not. Instead of raising their hands and calling out "Miss! Miss!" when they need help, Tabernacle children run their flag up its six-inch pole to attract the teacher’s attention. It’s quirky but effective. Tabernacle is an unashamedly Christian school, and the majority of parents are churchgoers. However the focus is on providing an excellent education rather than proselytising.
Tabernacle started out using an American curriculum with its own exam system because the school considered it more rigorous than the National Curriculum. Tabernacle is now introducing GCSEs and A-Levels, although it will retain the teaching methods that ensure all its pupils attain competence in English and maths sooner than most of their peers in state schools. A good proportion of former pupils have gone to university.
Few Tabernacle pupils have wealthy parents. Maximum fees are £4,500 per pupil. (This is less than the £5,000 cost of funding each state secondary school place parents would be entitled to take co-operative schools.) Many Tabernacle parents who have more than one child in the school and/or limited means benefit from free places or greatly reduced fees. As a result, fee income is much less than the school’s running costs. The shortfall is met by the Wilsons and their church, both of whom have made huge sacrifices to keep the school open.
After his visit two years ago, James Bartholomew reflected on the achievements of this ‘rescue centre for those failed by state schools’:
"Tabernacle School benefits the children themselves, above all. But it also benefits the whole of society. These children could easily have become part of the social problem - going in for crime, unmarried parenting and so on. Instead, they are becoming model citizens - taught to be honest, decent, hard-working and tax-paying. The contrast between what they might have been and what they will be is vast."
It’s a pity that Tabernacle School has not been able to expand and benefit more children. However it’s also a miracle the school has survived at all, sustained only by the faith, hard work and limited resources of Derrick, Paulette and their church.
David Cameron has visited and endorsed Tabernacle School. That experience may have fuelled his desire to see many good, new state schools set up by parents groups, charities and faith communities. If Derrick and Paulette can transform the life chances of relatively disadvantaged children when all the odds have been stacked against them, think what they – and people of similar commitment – could achieve if government got behind them. I look forward to David Cameron opening North Kensington’s Tabernacle Co-operative School in 2010.