Jacqui Smith: Trust schools are the key to raising standards

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The Independent Online

Trust schools are not a threat to the core values that we hold sacred: fair access and good teaching and learning for all. But we have to be realistic about how well the system is upholding these values. Can we really say that the status quo is fair when only around a quarter of pupils entitled to free school meals get five or more good GCSEs?

We need to move away from the idea that equality of opportunity means the same for everyone. It doesn't. Genuine equality means enabling schools to treat pupils as individuals, tailoring teaching and learning to meet their needs so they can fulfil their potential. So, success in the classroom is not determined by pupil intake, but by the quality of teaching and learning.

That is why, contrary to what was written in EDUCATION last week ("The Schools that Nobody Wanted, 20 April), many schools and potential partners are enthusiastic about trust schools.

I've spent 35 years as a pupil, governor, teacher and parent in comprehensive schools, and I know that comprehensive must not mean the same for everyone. Nor should it mean a retreat into defunct existing structures - it must not see reform or the involvement of new partners as a threat to the core values of education. They are not.

Through specialist schools and academies, we have seen that new energy and innovation in teaching and school leadership can have a big effect on standards. Every school should be able to draft in capacity from the local community and other partners. Trust school status can help to do this: supporting strong leadership and governance, and innovation in teaching and learning.

This is what we know works. Specialist schools work with outside partners and other schools and the results speak for themselves. In specialist schools serving our most deprived communities, 46 per cent of pupils got five good GCSEs compared with 36 per cent in non-specialist schools serving similar areas. And academies are improving at three times the national average.

But at the moment, not every school is able to do these things. While many schools and partners want to work together to raise standards, they say that without a formal structure allowing them to establish a sustainable partnership, their efforts at collaboration often fall down. Trusts give them a framework.

This is why, contrary to what the critics say, an increasing number of schools, businesses, universities and charities are interested in forming trusts. Like the University of the West of England, which is already working with the highly successful City Academy in Bristol, where the number of young people getting five or more good GCSEs leapt from 33 to 51 per cent in 2005. Or the Edge Foundation, an independent body promoting practical and vocational learning, which sees trust schools as an opportunity to foster excellence in practical and vocational learning. Or Priory School in Lincoln, which wants to build better links with the community and employers and work with other schools in the area to raise standards. Designated by Ofsted as outstanding, the Priory is forming a strong partnership with Ruston School and standards are rising.

We cannot ignore the fact that these organisations have genuine things to offer. Bringing in outside support should not be seen as a threat, but as recognition of the scale of the challenge we are facing.

Our progress over the past nine years is irrefutable: we've delivered better exam results at every stage in the system; more young people than ever go to university; standards in primary schools are the highest ever; and the number of teachers working in our schools is the highest it's been for 25 years.

Nationally, the link between underachievement and poverty is still too great. There are significant discrepancies across the system. In some of the best performing local authorities, more than a third of children entitled to free school meals get five or more good GCSEs. In the worst performing, less than half as many do as well. We let down our children and the education system if we don't use every bit of support.

Now is not the time to back down on reform. The past nine years have shown we can crack one of the dominant problems in education - that good results are still largely determined by intake. Our proposals for trust schools mean more schools can benefit from innovations that have helped raise standards in some of the worst performing areas. If we don't reform, we give licence to one of the most damaging ideologies: that many children, because of their background, will fail. This is not what I want to see.

The writer is Minister of State for Schools