“Why can’t we have a sixth form, Sir?”
This is the question Thornhill Community Academy’s Jonny Mitchell, the recognisable head teacher from Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire, responds to with the same answer each year. It’s more than often posed to him by departing year eleven pupils. Jonny was educated in Dewsbury, the same town in which his school is situated and which is ranked amongst the bottom 15 per cent in the country in terms of deprivation. He is committed to ensuring his school forms links with local community projects, sports clubs and companies which could offer employment opportunities. Jonny is dedicated to the Dewsbury youth. However, each time a pupil asks this question, they have and always will receive the same answer: “Because I don’t want one.”
As a star of a show which gave a local school its own celebrity status, I couldn’t understand why Jonny wouldn’t want to keep young people at his school who clearly wanted to stay. The genuine nature of both the staff and students of Thornhill came as a refreshing break from the choreographed and ego-fuelled power of what we now refer to as the reality T.V genre. By fitting hidden cameras within the Academy in Dewsbury, Channel 4 had gained 3 million viewers by the show’s final episode. We were not gazing into the elite classrooms of Eton, the halls of Cheltenham Ladies College, or anything which had been declared as “outstanding” by the apparently omniscient word of Ofsted. Educating Yorkshire was about the “local state school”, much like the one Jonny attended and those at which his own children have been educated. Why then, does Jonny not think it appropriate for those happy with their Dewsbury secondary school to be offered a sixth form?
“Our kids are already cocooned and quite hemmed into this society. If you don’t tell them that the world out there is actually really interesting and intriguing, they won’t go out there and find it for themselves. They’ll want spoon feeding; they’ll want food on the plate and they’ll want to be cared for in the same way as they are between the ages of 11 and 16. By extending provisions in the local area, we’re actually doing no favours whatsoever and actually, as someone who to a limited extent has gone to other places and lived in other countries, I think it’s important that they realise that there are other things outside the one mile radius from their house. These other things might help them make their own way in the world.”
By not providing a sixth form, Jonny forces his pupils to fly from the Thornhill nest. Institutions in other areas can provide pupils with greater opportunities for further education and employment. However, for Jonny, education was in itself a passport out of Dewsbury.
“I left school and went to college in Huddersfield. I couldn’t wait to get away from the area at that age, so I went to Edinburgh and spent four years studying languages there. That was when I got the bug for being away from home. I did whatever I could to get out of the country. I was 27 when I came back to the UK. It wasn’t until 2011 that I stepped back into Dewsbury, other than to visit my parents. I genuinely believe that if I had stayed here for my entire life up until the age of 41, which I am now, I would not have been in any way as successful in what I was doing in my job, social life or personal life as I would have been had I not gone out into the world.”
I wanted to know just what the Academy was doing in order to encourage students to make their own way after the school. Figures released by the Guardian in the summer show that well below 50 per cent of young people will pursue higher education. Jonny had spoken about his vision of pupils leaving Thornhill in order to go out into the world. He personally achieved this, primarily through an acceptance into a Scottish university. However, when I ask whether every young person should be aspiring to get a place on a university course, he affirms the contrary.
“I think that forcibly keeping people in education is wrong and is a major source for tort really. I’ll hold on to the fact that the country always needs some people to sweep the roads and answer the telephone. We cannot say to every child that one thing is what they should be aspiring to do, because some children will not achieve that. Children need to be realistically aspirational while being pushed to their full potential. I think one of the mistakes of the recent government is expanding the number of places available on (he pauses) what we could call “university courses” for kids that should be gaining more industry standard training and development within business. They would then be able to build their own futures and work through the ranks, as would have happened at an old-style apprenticeship. Furthermore, I do think that telling somebody that they can go to university when they have two Es and then saying, “but you could be the chief exec of BP by 2016,” is filling people’s heads with nonsense. There ought to be tailored solutions to individual circumstances. Irrespective of the colour of the government, it has been a problem for quite a few years. I am a political sceptic when it comes to the education system. It’s very easy to tinker with and it’s an immediate vote that is there. People always want to see the education system being toughened up and made more rigorous.”
As Thornhill year elevens leave the safety net of secondary school, they are encouraged to pursue some form of education or training which will lead to invaluable qualifications. “Without GCSEs at certain grades you can barely cross the road. Even to work at McDonald’s you need qualifications,” Jonny tells me. However, the colleges which Thornhill feeds are not all solely focused on academia.
“We try and get the pupils into one of the four main colleges that we use. We are blessed and pleased to have Greenhead and New College in Huddersfield, which are both academic institutions that have developed good reputations for themselves. We’ve also got Kirklees College which is tailored more towards the vocational, but which also offers traditional academic routes. Then there is Wakefield College, which offers a vast range of qualifications and courses that look down the industry route. They focus on industry partnerships and day releases to make sure that students are learning on the job and have opportunities to get paid while doing work. This allows them to aspire towards goals which are realistic for them, it’s where they can still push themselves.”
This summer, David Cameron announced a launch of 100,000 new engineering apprenticeship schemes. Getting young people into industry-specific work is obviously beneficial to the economy as a whole, but I wanted to know why Jonny believed it was a good deal for individual students.
“I’m a huge fan of expanding the apprenticeship programme. The problem with the schemes at the moment is that there are far too few of them. One example of something going on in Yorkshire is at the Leeds College of Building. They’re looking at various contacts in the construction and engineering industries, not just to take on level one and two candidates leaving school at sixteen who, in inverted commas, “might think they have nothing else to do and no career prospects”, but also top-end graduates. Institutions like this are offering kids the chance to gain qualifications right up to level seven. These are industry specific and actually tailored to an expanding jobs market.”
If this is the case, why is it that some students can feel so pressurised into signing up to “soft degrees”, which will ultimately lead them into debt which they will find difficult to repay?
“There is only one reason why the government is interested in keeping people in education post sixteen and that is to make sure unemployment figures for 16-25 year olds fall in the first instance. This is because they will cease to become reportable until the age of 18. Therefore, there is a short term goal there. Forcing people through further education is not the way to fix the employment market.”
Once Thornhill Community Academy students have completed their GCSE courses, they must begin to make their own choices and not simply stagnate within the narrow boundaries of their own local area. Jonny loves teaching and his cares and concerns for individual pupils come before the performance rating of the school, which, and he claims to share the opinion of most head teachers, he’s “not that bothered about anymore” as it has become an arbitrary and uncontextualised judgement. At the end of the academic year, Jonny would rather see individuals following their own suited routes to qualifications, rather than young people who have been pushed into big name colleges where they will not thrive, even if it would offer the school an opportunity to boast a few stats in its next prospectus. It is Jonny’s belief that, however comfortable they feel, pupils need to leave the Academy, because by the end of year eleven, they can no longer be educated or trained en masse. This is why Thornhill Community Academy is unlikely to be opening a new sixth form in the near future.