I have written a piece today in the Guardian
about my local schools in the London Borough of Camden, and about our local primary school in particular. Here is a slightly longer version of the article.
It is coming up to Christmas so I am going to allow myself a touch of sentimentality. A few weeks ago I felt a stab of pride, and momentary panic, when the sign outside our local primary school flashed up on the 10 O’clock news.
Pride because all our children were educated there, I was a governor for 18 years and chair of governors for ten. Panic because, over the 20 years since we first became involved with the school, I have got used to any media focus on state education being predominantly negative.
And in the case of Gospel Oak doubly so; it was probably one of the worst schools in the country when our children joined; named and shamed in one of the earliest Ofsted inspections, It bumped along the bottom of the league tables throughout the 1990s. I have written a longer piece about what happened at the school here.
I got used to being told we were sacrificing out children for political principles. It wasn’t a sacrifice. Many children in the school were happy and flourished in spite of its failings. Firm friendships were forged and carried through to secondary school, along with a strong sense of being part of a wider, diverse community.
But there were principles involved. We wanted to help make the school better for the children who didn’t have the advantages ours had, which probably insulated them against its shortcomings. And as the effects of the incipient education market became clearer, the school’s intake changed dramatically – in the first few years after our original Ofsted the number of children eligible for FSM rose from 27% to almost 60%.
However its recent nano second in the limelight was for a different reason. Gospel Oak is now a successful, popular school. It is also situated in the London Borough of Camden - which topped Ofsted 's new LA league table
for having a higher percentage of good and outstanding primary schools than any other part of the country. Earlier this year I pointed out that inner London boroughs like Camden were also outperforming many leafier, more affluent authorities in the government’s primary performance tables.
True to form, the positive story that is Camden was glossed over in the full news report, in favour of a negative story about the most poorly performing authority in the country. Which is a shame because looking more closely at Camden would be instructive.
In spite of being a borough with huge inequalities and high fall out into the private sector – around 30% of pupils are in the independent sector - there is still a strong commitment to local state schools by parents from all backgrounds so we have genuine comprehensives at primary and secondary level - most of which is also good or outstanding. This provides a virtuous cycle - the herd instinct is a powerful one when it comes to schooling.
It attracts and retains good heads, teachers and governors, possibly drawn by the rich and varied intakes of the schools, but maybe also by the strongly collaborative ethos. One of the first things the local authority did in the wake of the coalition reforms was to launch an education commission
chaired by Sir Mike Tomlinson. Several areas for improvement emerged but an over-riding theme was pride in the Camden “family of schools” and a wish for this to continue in the face of national policy pulling in the opposite direction.
And the local authority has been well led, achieving the right balance of challenge and support. Some years ago a decision was taken to differentiate the way this was managed. Schools causing concern would receive more help, and earlier. Those schools already flying would get much less but their expertise would be used to help those that needed it. 'No surprises' was one of the watchwords.
But there was one surprise, to me at least. In spite of topping the Ofsted table, Camden wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Chief Inspectors Annual Report.
But then again, should we be surprised? The Camden story doesn’t fit the script. It hardly has any academies and no school has yet converted in spite of the considerable financial inducements. In this piece
on the Guardian website, Kate Frood, the head of an outstanding Camden primary school explains why she thinks that is they case.
The fact that some local authorities have failed to improve their schools is inexcusable. But the appearance of the new Ofsted rankings suggests an expectation that they must still strive for this, even though in some cases their powers, and resources, are limited.
Ofsted is now planning to work at a regional level to understand and share good practice. I suggest they start by coming to Camden.They will see that local authorities can work, parents and communities can help to make existing schools better and that good teaching leadership and governance are not the preserve of any one single ‘type‘ of school.