So much of what was predicted about the government’s free school and academies programme is now coming to pass. Independent status is not a fast track to guaranteed success. Good and bad provision exists in equal measure in all types of school and, as Henry Stewart’s posts
on this site repeatedly show, maintained schools are holding their own in our complex new schools market.
In fact it now seems blindingly obvious that if you set up new schools too quickly, without assimilating them well into the local community and without adequate vetting of the providers, it is quite likely they will fail. Laura McInerney’s
book “ The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools….and how to avoid them”,
published by LKMco
in the heady early days of the coalition, explained why this was likely to happen. Laura blogged passionately again on this subject yesterday (see here
) in response to the news
that Michael Gove is now seeking to limit the fallout from failing free schools. He only has himself to blame though. The persistent over promotion of these schools, at the expense of all others, made it inevitable that even the smallest failure would attract disproportionate attention. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson
has even suggested that this failure rate was all part of the plan. To show that the market in schools could work effectively, the government would open new schools then close them when they didn’t work out.
Bonkers maybe, but there has never been a better time to focus on alternatives to this crazy policy. I suggest we start with the story of Tower Hamlets, which houses some of the poorest, and the richest, people in the country. Over 50 per cent of Tower Hamlets children are eligible for Free School Meals. It is also home to Canary Wharf and to much of London’s thriving financial services industry. The recent history of education reform in this most diverse London borough has now been chronicled in a new pamphlet “Transforming Education for all: the Tower Hamlets story”
and there are powerful lessons to be learned.
Only 15 years ago Tower Hamlets education was in a mess. Ranked 149 out of 149 education authorities in terms of performance in 1997, teaching in many schools was judged inadequate or poor by Ofsted. However the local authority didn’t just cave in and hand its schools over to outside providers. It set about systematically tackling the problems it found and in the intervening years oversaw a dramatic turnaround. Whether you look at attainment, progress, narrowing gaps or Ofsted grades, Tower Hamlets’ schools now outstrip their counterparts in many of the most affluent parts of the country.
So how was it done? The report’s authors, Professor Chris Husbands, Professor David Woods and Dr Chris Brown, single out seven key themes.
was promoted at all levels, from the local authority to individual schools. This was typified by a “Yes we can “attitude, shared values and relentlessly high aspirations for all children, regardless of their backgrounds.
The council invested in very effective School Improvement.
Support, challenge and intervention went hand in hand with partnership and collaboration between schools and sharing data.
High quality teaching and learning
. Tower Hamlets set out to recruit great teachers, to keep them and to offer high quality continuous professional development
High levels of funding
. Tower Hamlets is one of the best-funded authorities in the country and, as I have pointed out in my Guardian column
today, that isn’t fair. Equally poor children in some other parts of the country, where it may be much harder to recruit good teachers, get around £3000 per head less than pupils in Tower Hamlets. Yet teachers in those areas are required to ensure their students make similar progress to those in inner London. But as the report makes clear it isn't just about the money. Tower Hamlets was also one of the best-funded authorities in 1997, when it was failing miserably. But now budgets are now managed tightly, strategically and allied to aspirational and focused leadership.
External, integrated services
. School improvement was linked to other local authority interventions aimed at improving the health and well being of young people, overcoming deprivation and tackling the perennial problems of NEETs and looked after children.
Community development and partnerships
. Tower Hamlets council invested in building social cohesion beyond the school gate and strengthening relationships between schools, businesses, universities and community organisations.
A resilient approach to external government policies and pressure
. Tower Hamlets stuck to its guns when it came to pressure for academies, preferring to stick to its own locally grown programme of aspiration and collaboration. It also worked with the London Challenge
, which was being implemented at the same time. Even today it only has a handful of academies and free schools.
There is so much more in this report than I can cover here. Particular credit for the Tower Hamlets success story must go to Christine Gilbert
and Kevan Collins
, the two inspirational Directors of Children’s Services who oversaw this transformation.
But in the week that even the government is tacitly admitting its reforms may be flawed, lets be grateful that there is still an alternative out there; well funded, local managed networks of schools where shared ambition trumps a focus on individualism and competition and high standards are rooted in the community.
This report makes the case for what a good local authority CAN do by using all the levers at its disposal - school improvement, political leadership, funding, wider community interventions and multi-agency working - for the benefit of ALL children. Even the best academy chain or school federation can never match this approach. We should be grateful for Tower Hamlets for holding its nerve and proving beyond question that another way is possible.