Tony Benn

As the various tributes pour in following the passing of veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, I though I would add my personal memory. As anyone who is kind enough to read my blog will realise his politics and mine are somewhat at the other end of the spectrum but he certainly held his views firm and true throughout his life and that is a quality I much admire as I do struggle to come to terms with those who’s ability to remove one rosette and pin on another is an easy action. Likewise my personal reading list is mainly made up of reading the views of those I actually disagree with rather than those from my own side and one of the series of books I have enjoyed most over the years was Tony Benn’s diaries. In fact come to think of it my book shelves are rather filled with political diaries and commentary and other than the odd history book that seems to be the sole breath of my reading.

I went to school in Ely and whilst a few years ago now, I still return to the city to visit my favourite book shop Topping and Co at 9 High Street, a wonderful little book shop well worth the trip. The other great place in Ely I love to visit is the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral, in my view, other that the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the most beautiful church I have ever had the privilege to sit and ponder a while in. So when, a few years ago, Topping and Co arranged for Tony Benn to talk come to Ely to talk about his diaries in the Lady Chapel I jumped at the chance. At the event Tony Benn spoke with great wisdom about his life in politics, his unwavering belief in left wing politics and that whilst a far from perfect system, British politics for all its ups and downs has produced a stability which is the envy of the world. At the end in time honoured tradition was an opportunity to have your purchased book signed by the man himself and to have the briefest of chats. As I queued I wondered what to say and I mentioned that years earlier how, often, as I dined with my father in London as one of his favourite restaurants, I would see him sweep past us, along with much of the labour front bench to the famous upstairs room at the oldest Hungarian restaurant in London the Gay Hussar in Soho, at that time the sort of unofficial dining room of the labour movement, and for that brief moment we shared memories of one of London’s more ‘difficult’ restaurateurs, Victor Sassie. The restaurant remains but its Hungarian owner is but a memory, as too now is Tony Benn. A very honest and true to his beliefs man and whilst our politics may be very different, someone to much admire is these shifting middle ground times.

Suffolk’s Schools Improvement

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.

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