In praise of Camden - proof that excellence isn't the preserve of any one 'type' of school

Fiona Millar's picture
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.

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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/12/2012 - 09:03

Camden was listed as the local authority area where it was most likely that primary school pupils would attend a maintained primary school judged good or outstanding (92%). It’s odd, then, that Camden wasn’t given a special mention. But, as Fiona says, perhaps it’s because Camden doesn’t fit the much publicised perception that academy conversion and academy chains are needed to improve schools.

This is appeared in Ofsted’s annual report:

"However, there is still not enough local authority drive – and in some cases there is active resistance – to make use of good leadership, stronger schools and academy chains to improve weaker schools and improve local provision."

Sir Michael Wilshaw is correct to censure LAs which don’t sufficiently support struggling schools. However, he’s wrong to suggest that academy chains are part of the answer. He is also wrong to suggest that local authorities who resist the incursion of academy chains into their areas are those which do not support struggling schools.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 12/12/2012 - 19:13

To be fair to Sir Mike I think he does want to have powers to inspect academy chains - I assume because there are concerns about their performance.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Thu, 24/01/2013 - 22:11

So those LEAs who were supposed to get out of the headteacher's way are now in trouble for not doing more?

Utter farce.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/12/2012 - 09:35

Unfortunately Sir Michael sends out mixed messages. He quite rightly wants to inspect academy chains, but his annual report says sponsorship makes a difference when the evidence suggests that when schools improve they do so using a variety of methods which don't have anything to do with whether the school is an academy or non-academy. He cites strong leadership as being an essential component of a good school but then equates this with being a head who knows s/he's doing well when staff morale is low. He manipulates statistics by claiming that all schools judged "satisfactory" before the new category of "requires improvement" came into being are schools that are not good enough. This can only be justified by applying the new category retrospectively. This is unsafe as some of these schools could have improved since their last Ofsted (just as those judged good or outstanding could have fallen).

Sir Michael is overseeing a regime that has been described as "frightening":

And despite all the talk of "rigour", Sir Michael doesn't apply the same standards to his use of statistics:

Ofsted seems split between being punitive and supportive. This was highlighted by the Education Select Committee in March 2011:

Gabriel Mushungaidze's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 15:02

Very nice article. Thank you very much. I also liked Mrs Downs earlier discussions of the EIU report 'The Learning Curve'.

That report 'concluded that general lessons could be learned: high-performing school systems tended to have “high standards, solid curriculum, competent teachers and a supportive culture that is education-minded.” It also tentatively suggested that “other research might point to the importance of school choice and school autonomy.”

So research shows that you are right. Excellence in education is the preserve of no single type of school.

Detailed research is only now becoming available, for example, on schools set up to make a profit.

‘The differential impact of for-profit and non-profit management is especially sizable. Using the estimates given above, students in schools under for-profit management gained between 70 per cent and greater than a full year’s worth of learning in math more each year than they would have had the schools been under non-profit management.'
‘Impact of for-profit and non-profit management on student achievement: the Philadelphia Intervention, 2002-08’, Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series PEPG 09-02 (Harvard University, 2010)'

The Swedish study 'Tegle, S. ‘Påverkar förekomst av friskolor betygen i grundskolan? – En statistisk analys av samtliga elever i årskurs 9 år 2006’ (Stockholm: Svenskt Näringsliv, 2010)' indicates that, taking endogeneity into account, for-profit and non-profit schools are equally good at raising standards.

Some of the most famous schools in the world, at all levels of education, make a profit.

This comes as no surprise since many of the world's great philanthropic organisations have been set up by the beneficiaries of for profit enterprises.

It now seems clear that education, as well as other areas of massive state expenditure, can also benefit from the traditional human exchange motivation of profit.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 15:51

Gabriel - thank you for appreciation of Fiona's article and my earlier ones based on the Learning Curve. However, your support for profit-making schools is not shared by everyone. Sweden has started an inquiry into the motivation of the profit-making education companies which run Sweden's free schools. The Swedish education minister feared that profit-making could result in a conflict of interest between the educational needs of the pupils and the need to give shareholders a return.

In Chile, students have been rioting for over a year protesting about for-profit schools.

Here in England, Cognita, the profit-making private school provider set up by ex-Ofsted chief Sir Chris Woodhead, has been accused of "milking" the Southbank International School for profit (see my recent thread on Cognita).

When profit-making is introduced into education, then education becomes a commodity to be bought, sold and traded. This puts equity at risk.

A study by Sussex University into Low Fee Paying (LFP) schools in a rural area of India found that such schools were not as affordable as their supporters claimed. Education is not affordable if the money for fees cuts into spending on essentials or if parents have to take out loans at punitive rates of interest. The researchers concluded that it would be better to improve state education for all.

Watch this short clip from a recent documentary about China's "Ant people" (graduates who can't get a job). Listen to the recruiter for a profit-making college explain how he cons potential students and sells them a worthless education.

Gabriel Mushungaidze's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 16:55

The demonstrations in Chile are organised by the Unified Workers Federation, the country's foremost union. There are, of course, marked inequalities in Chilean society and a clear need for increases in state education spending. These inequalities cannot be said to exist, to anything like the same degree, in Sweden or Britain

Nevertheless, studies regarding education in Chile indicate that profit enables successful schools to increase in size, so spreading the benefits of a decent education.

There are, of course, many examples of accounting scandals of various sorts in all different kinds of schools and, indeed, in most human activity.

I agree that any study of China is unlikely to repay the close student in whatever field.

Nevertheless, Sweden permits for profit schools and does succeed in providing a decent state provided education for all.

The story of human progress is very much based on the profit motive, pecuniary or otherwise, so it would appear counter intuitive to suggest that it has entirely no part to play in education.

The success of private sector education in England, and in the export market, seems to bear this out.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 18:27

Gabriel - "the success of the private sector education in England" diminishes when social background is taken into account. The OECD, which administers the PISA tests, found:

"On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the United Kingdom even of 62 score points). However, once the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for, public schools come out with a slight advantage of 7 score points, on average across OECD countries (in the United Kingdom public schools outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for)."

As far as Sweden is concerned, I said above that Sweden has started an inquiry about the motivation of for-profit companies.

Education is not a commodity - it is a right.

Gabriel Mushungaidze's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 08:01

The only real test as to whether a system of education is successful or not derives from its students and their achievements.

Your excellent commentary on the EIU report earlier makes it clear that connecting outputs to inputs with regard to education is extremely difficult.

Logically, therefore, the only test we can rely on for the success of a school is that of parental demand.

Pupils come from far and wide across the globe, particularly China, to Britain's private schools, which have now also set up a steadily increasing number of schools overseas during a difficult period for the global economy.

The latest Swedish study from the Institute for evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, Oct. 2012, finds that free schools have produced better results on the same budget as state schools and that they are more efficient in spending that money.

The study concludes that free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards in all schools.

Education is by no means either a commodity or a right, or, indeed, for that matter, an inter galactic super induction tectonic vortex.

Homo sapiens, as a species, has carved out what it has by ingenuity, teamwork and organised violence. The species could return from whence it came rather more quickly than most of us would care to imagine.

But education is certainly an entitlement in a civilised world.

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