It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I have not be able to blog as much as I would like to as it’s also been a really interest time in Council life. Of course this week has been dominated by the Ofsted’s less than impressive report (letter) into the Suffolk County Council’s School Improvement Programme.
On Wednesday of this week a interesting debate raged on twitter, which is not easy when everyone has to make their point in 140 characters or less! The day started with Labour Ipswich Councillor @AlasdairRoss effectively using the platform to ‘call me out’ as to why I had not blogged about the letter. A tweet I picked up when I was already in London for a joint meeting of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board and the Community Wellbeing Board I sit on.
During the day various tweeters chipped into the debate and provided their thoughts and opinions, including Suffolk political reporter Paul Geater of the EADT @Geates who gave it an historical prospective, and there was also a contribution from Ipswich Spy’s blogger Ben Redsell and others, all of which I thought were really useful and certainly added to my thoughts on the issue at hand.
And of course beyond social media a debate has also been taking place alongside more traditional methods of email and phone calls and in my case a few chats over a cup of coffee, reflecting on what has been said and what we are going to do about it.
As I watched the Anglia Tonight and Look East coverage on Tuesday evening, with Cllr. Lisa Chambers ‘defending the line’ extremely well and with the conviction I know she has, as indeed do we all to see the improvements we want. Look East also interviewed the Area Director of Ofsted Sean Harford who’s comment about how beyond the role of the County Council it is pushy parents that help improve standards in schools. The reporting on Tuesday was rightly about the criticisms of the county’s school improvement services but as I watched, it struck me that actually it’s everyone responsibility to make sure our schools are as good as they can be, from the County Council to Parents to Governors and dare I say it Teachers and Head Teachers as well.
So it was disappointing in the body of the letter to read that the majority of head teachers surveyed expressed scepticism, of course it was a relatively small group they actually surveyed but it is marked contrast to the ‘Raising the Bar’ conference I spent the day at in the autumn of last year when the head teachers in the 400 or so delegates were really enthused by the new approach.
In reading the letter a couple of times, as I did, once you get past the strong language in the executive summary it appears to have been written by two different people. The second part indicates to me at least that they recognise the ‘Raising the bar’ programme and the change in work being implemented as the right direction of travel but they do question is it happening with enough momentum to effect real improvement.
Equally in the letter I think you can see the confusion that seems to rein at the moment, Ofsted lead by Sir Michael Wilshaw is clear that education is the responsibility of the Local Education Authority in Suffolk’s case the County Council, yet at the same time the Secretary of State Michael Gove MP is clear that he wants the LEA out of education as he enlarges the previous governments Academy and Free School programme.
For me I do actually struggle a bit with the notion of a competitive market place driving up standards across primary and secondary schools. Suffolk for the main part and my Division in particular is rural, in my home village the primary school is where most children will be sent irrespective of whether it is rated good or bad. Parents have to get to work and the notion that everyone can switch their schools if one is better than the other is a nonsense.
So at the primary school level a competitive environment simply does not exist. However it does exist in Secondary education where there is actual choice between the Mildenhall College Academy and the Brandon Free School. Here maybe we see the future model of whom, in general terms, are the providers as there seems less interest of providers to morph primary schools into a competitive market place.
All slightly by the by in respect of the Ofsted letter but it is an important point that whether the school improvement service is good or bad it has absolutely no relevance to the secondary schools in my area as they have nothing to do with the County Council and report directly to Department of Education, somewhat digressing what happens if they via Ofsted are required to improvement, what happens if they fail to turn it around, this to me is less than clear does the department of education have the capacity to sort that out or will they in the long run seek a more local authority, interesting, but as I say somewhat digressing.
Interestingly on Wednesday morning in the joint session of the Children and Young People’s Board and the Community Well Being Board, amongst the items on the agenda were issues of Children’s Public Health and Children’s mental health services and time and time again much came around to the role of schools in the early stages and delivery of preventative practice, again I struggle to see how this works with the current thinking.
In my opinion I think that irrespective of whom is the provider of the school whether it is a Free School, Academy or LEA there is a role for the local democratic accountable body to be involved. As we look towards a more integrated health and local services agenda the notion that schools disengage from the new integration is wrong, equally if a school is failing, to whom do parent turn? Surely this needs to be their local Councillors and for those local Councillors to be able to actually do something about it.
This of course neatly and probably a bit inconveniently brings us back to the Ofsted letter, in the twitter exchanges someone said we must avoid political point scoring and I agreed but to be fair it’s probably a bit rich coming from me to insist on that, as I am on occasion not obverse to a bit of point scoring. But it is right to say this is serious stuff and to some extent what historically brings us to this point is fair game but not that relevant to how we move forward.
So we come back to the central question given the criticism in the letter and the more detailed comments in the body of the letter that both recognises the real initiatives within ‘Raising the Bar’, and questions its ability to deliver the real improvement we all want to see. Personally I have watched the programme be developed over some 18 months and be co-produced with Head Teachers, Governors and Parents and thus has great merit, the question to my mind is one of momentum and capacity to drive forward the improvement we want. It is here that I think the debate should centre and from many conversations both internal and external this is where the debate is taking place.