Schools in north Westminster: more to do, but let’s realise just how far we’ve come

Posted: 20/01/10

My experience as a parent in north Westminster has almost exactly mirrored my life as an MP - local childminder, Pre-School, nursery, primary and secondary school. Real life being what it is, it has sometimes been a bumpy ride. Yet, taken overall, I have been impressed and often deeply moved by the dedication and ability of those working in our early years services and schools. Happily, my journey has occured at the same time that we've seen immense improvement in Westminster's education provision.

A decade or so ago, half of all the borough's secondary schools, and several primaries, were either in special measures or judged to have serious weaknesses. As I write this only one primary school is now causing concern and overall progress has been dramatic. To pick just a few examples, Gateway school has been rightly garlanded with praise for their achievements. St George's has just been named as one of 100 most improved schools in the whole country. Wilberforce received an extremely positive inspection, and of course schools like St Josephs and St Saviours and Marylebone Girls School continue to produce exceptional results.

Four brand new Academy schools are now in operation in Westminster, in new buildings which represent around £100 million of investment. A £150 million 'Building Schools of the Future' programme is ensuring that better premises and technology are coming on stream across the borough. Plans are taking shape for Quinton Kynaston to be rebuilt as a pioneering facility which brings a whole range of education, health and other services onto a single site.

The breathtaking design for our new college of further education can be seen emerging from the scaffolding on Paddington Green. Extra nursery classes have opened up, not least in new nurseries in Harrow Road, Church Street and Paddington. And a network of Children's Centres offer classes, support and advice to parents with young children. Extended Schools funding has helped develop out-of-hours clubs and classes, to help children and working parents.

Nor is the story just about buildings, or even extra and better rewarded, staff. Results have improved dramatically. In 1997, only just over half of our 11 year olds were leaving primary school at the expected standard for English and Maths. Now 3 in 4 are doing so. In 1997, just one 16 year old in every 5 got 5 good grades at GCSE- that has more than doubled today. 1400 local teenagers from low income families now get the 'staying on at school' Educational Maintenance Allowance and 60% more Westminster youngsters are going on to university.

I have no illusions about the world of Westminster education being a perfect one. The intake of some of our schools remains challenging and relative disadvantage tends to be reflected in results. The image too many people have of rampant ill-dscipline in inner city schools is usually far from the truth - but it is not always rosy either. Too many of our puils come from backgrounds scarred by awful experiences - homelessnessness, parents with mental health and other problems, the trauma of being refugees from the world's worst places. Turnover of both pupils and staff is higher than in the leafy suburbs or properous counties. Westminster Council's decision to slahs spending on education also causes me deep concern, especially given the scale of criticism of the borough's performance in the report of the Education Commission last year.

Progress is, in short, not set in stone. What has been achieved should be a cause for celebration, but it needs to be guarded. It did not come about by accident, but as a result of a conscious decision to invest in people and places. But in order to make the case for protecting what we have we should, I believe, start by appreciating just what that it is, and what a very long way we have come.