A college headteacher who has retired after a 37-year education career has called for schools to unite or risk struggling in “a fractured system”.
As Jim Cockburn stepped down from Longbenton Community College last Friday (19th), he warned of the dangers of an emerging “free market” in schooling and politicians overreacting in tackling classroom issues.
In an exclusive Journal interview, the 60-year-old urged Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan and her successors to work with the teaching profession rather than against it.
And he thanked past and present Longbenton colleagues, pupils and families for welcoming him to an area he claims has put its one-time shady “Longbenton Boot Boys” reputation firmly in the past.
Mr Cockburn, who lives in Morpeth, grew up in Grangemouth, Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University before taking a job in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, in 1977.
The economics teacher headed to Cramlington High School in 1985, becoming head of sixth form until December 1988 when he left for Alnwick’s Duchess Community High School, taking on the deputy head role.
In 1993 he was appointed Longbenton’s principal, replacing John Burn.
The Newcastle United season ticket holder said: “It seemed the right move and I thought it was a really interesting job.
“What struck me most was that the college was right in the centre of a very strong community, made up a mix of poorer neighbourhoods and middle class areas.
“That sense of community was highlighted by a disability resource centre for adults with disabilities on-site, and it was so good for students to integrate with people in wheelchairs.
“We may not have that facility now due to financial reasons, but we are still a very important part of the community.”He added: “Going back decades the reputation of Longbenton as an area wasn’t very good. The Longbenton Boot Boys days have disappeared and the students here are wonderful.
“Minibus drivers say to us the youngsters they take to football matches are so well behaved. That is partly due to us but also the support they receive at home.
“The area has changed with new housing but the community feel of the area remains as strong.”Exam results have improved markedly since 1993, while more parents who previously opted to send their child elsewhere are deciding Longbenton now meets their standards.
And with work due to start on new school buildings in the new year, Mr Cockburn expects his successor Paul Quinn - currently vice principal - to see a significant increase on the current 900 students enrolled.
He said: “The quality of teaching has improved beyond measure. I now see teachers doing really exciting things which perhaps they wouldn’t have done 21 years ago.
“Technology has been the big difference. In the early days, there was one computer in a classroom for the teacher to use but they didn’t know what to do with it.
“Now we have a number of computer labs and make use of mobile devices like iPads, which in the future will be given to all students for lessons.”
Mr Cockburn still loves to teach and interact with his pupils, and in the days leading to his retirement offered himself for mock interviews to sixth formers applying to Oxbridge.
But he has been unable to avoid politics in his work - which he says started in earnest in 1976 with Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech demanding schools do more to prepare young people for work.
It led to Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act including the national curriculum and governors being given responsibility for maintaining budgets rather than local authorities.
He said: “I always felt there needed to be some form of national curriculum because there was too much of a free-for-all with students missing out on elements of the core curriculum, but there was an overreaction. It was too detailed and was unworkable.
“New Labour followed and aimed to raise standards which was the right message but it wasn’t warmly welcomed at first by schools because it was another overreaction and felt like interfering.
“More recently, Michael Gove has micromanaged too much and was almost telling schools what and how they could teach. He never went as far as he wanted but his approach affronted teachers. He went because his own party realised he was alienating the teaching profession and was losing votes.
“I hope that message gets out to future Secretaries of State, that they have to have the teaching profession working with them to take schools forward.”But despite growing numbers of teacher strikes over pay, which Mr Cockburn says could reach the levels of the early to mid 1980s, it is another issue that causes the Scot the most concern going forward.
He explained: “The hardest thing in recent years has been the appearance of the free market in schooling. All sorts of schools are being set up and leaving behind local authority influence - becoming academies or free schools.
“There seems to be a lot of anti-local authority feeling from central government, but there must be a halfway house. Yes, we don’t want to go back to days I started in when local authorities controlled everything and schools should have freedom, but within a family of local schools in the local authority.
“I worry that the school system is becoming fractured. Schools are going their own way and some will get into difficulty and others are successful at the expense of others. There is no sense of coordination and that doesn’t make sense to me.”
He added: “In North Tyneside, there are only three academies which is unusual, but we are different because schools want to work with the local authority and the local authority wants to help schools without telling them what to do. Our partnership is the North Tyneside Learning Trust and has proved to be very successful.
“Now schools are marketing themselves, often aggressively. When they make ridiculous claims that they are the best school in the area or advertise on the back of a bus it makes me uncomfortable - a lot of money is being wasted, but they cannot afford not to do it because everyone else is.”Retirement will see the father-of-three spend more time with wife Ella - former assistant headteacher at Stakeford First School - and sons Andrew, Stephen and David, with plans for travelling in between education consultancy work.
“I want to be remembered as someone who cared - for the students and staff and the area.
“We currently have and have had lots of excellent teachers and support staff working here who have been very loyal to me and have dedicated themselves to our students and to the school and I am grateful for that. Of course, I will miss the youngsters too.
“I know Paul will make a great success of his job and the school will go from strength to strength. There is something really special about Longbenton and local parents have every confidence in sending their children here.”