The boss of one of country’s best-performing academy trusts has called for government to address “head on” the underperformance of white working-class youngsters, tackle “endemic” knife crime and fix broken mental health support services.
In a rare public appearance, Harris Federation chief executive Sir Dan Moynihan set out what he sees as the major issues facing schools.
Speaking at a panel at the Conservative party conference today, he said support services feeding into schools were “stretched to hell”, leaving teachers doing “more and more with services that really aren’t our business”.
‘They’re stretched to hell’
He gave stark examples: for instance, more than half of the 300 pupils at Harris Primary Academy in Peckham, in south London, are homeless.
“The head and her staff spent no end of time trying to get people into accommodation, night-by-night, and provide them food from a food bank because they don’t have cooking facilities. We’re seeing more and more of that.”
While there is a “growing problem with mental health”, they “can’t access council services in many cases” – with children in some boroughs waiting one or two years for support.
The trust uses core funding to pay for an internal team of five mental health specialists, but Moynihan said: “It isn’t enough [when] you’ve got 44,000 youngsters and last year we had 1,707 cases of mental health difficulties that really need assistance.
“Somebody needs to do something about the structure and resourcing of provision for mental health in local authorities and also for special needs. They’re stretched to hell, they can’t deliver. It’s not just about money, it’s about money and reform.”
Schools Week revealed earlier this year the widespread collapse in support services feeding into schools since the Conservatives took office.
Moynihan called the issue an “easy target” – pointing to the political cut through squeezed school funding had during the 2017 election – saying it was “becoming a crisis”.
‘Address white working class underperformance head on’
Moynihan, the country’s best-paid school leader on £455,000, also said: “We all know that black Caribbean youngsters have underperformed nationally, that’s an issue.
“But an even bigger group is white working-class students, [from families with] low income. We don’t talk about them – why is that?”
In 2019, just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils on free school meals achieved a grade 5 or above in English and maths, compared with 22.5 per cent of all free school meal pupils.
“For me, any government worth the title – whichever colour it is – would be addressing that head on and having a national debate about what we’re going to do with the underachievement of some key groups that do really, really badly,” Moynihan added.
Moynihan: Knife crime is ‘endemic‘
Moynihan also said gang and knife crime is “endemic” in some of the London boroughs the trust operates, but said “we don’t hear much about it other than we see the faces on the television of the latest kid who’s been stabbed.
“If this was in Surrey we’d be seeing it and hearing about it. We’re not seeing and hearing about it when it’s in Southwark or Croydon. What’s the strategy to tackle knife crime?”
Office for National Statistics data shows there were 12,786 knife offences in London during the last financial year rose, up by 16 per cent on the previous year.
Moynihan said his schools see “the same youths who’ve already been arrested for possession of a knife” outside their gates, adding: “Where’s the stop and search?
“There’s no problem with our parents with stop and search, they want their children to come home safely. They want to know there’s a police presence – but there isn’t.”
He added that the disadvantage gap was also a “perennial problem that clearly is a criminal waste of talent. If we’re going to be a country that competes with the best in the world, we can’t be writing off a large section of our population.”
He concluded by saying: “We now need more than education. We need the other services as well, and somebody needs to find a solution to that in policy terms rather than ignore it.”