Kicking LAs in the North could be counterproductive and lock schools in a spiral of decline

Janet Downs's picture

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief, attacked Northern local authorities for the quality of secondary education in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research today.

 ‘Three in 10 secondary schools in Manchester and four in 10 in Liverpool require improvement or are inadequate compared to 1 in 10 in inner London,’ he said.

It’s well known London schools have the best results in England.  Its success has been attributed to the London Challenge and the large number of aspirational children of immigrants.  Sir Michael said nothing about the former but appeared to dismiss the latter – if London’s success was down to immigration then results should be as high in Liverpool and Manchester, he implied.

Although Sir Michael ignored the London Challenge, Christopher Russell, Ofsted’s Regional Director in the North West, did not.  In his excoriating letter to Knowsley about its secondary schools he asked local politicians to show the same ‘political will’ which contributed to the London Challenge’s success.   

But the London Challenge wasn’t confined to one borough.  It was a pan-London initiative.  A similar scheme in the North West would need to include all local authorities and receive sufficient investment and support.   Schools would need to co-operate.  But this collaboration would be more difficult to achieve in today’s fragmented secondary landscape than it was in 2003 when the Challenge was launched.

It’s much easier and cheaper, then, to give struggling northern LAs a kicking in the hope they will be shamed into improving.

Sir Michael’s figures were correct but, as ever, need to be put in context.   There are 27 secondary schools in Manchester: 4 have yet to be inspected.  If these are judged Good or better the percentage of such secondary schools in the city would jump from 70% to 81%.  This would be above the national average of 75%.

Liverpool fares worse.  60% of the 30 secondary schools inspected are Good or better.  Even if the one uninspected school is Good or better, it won’t have much impact on the overall proportion.

Sir Michael is damning the Good or better schools as well as struggling ones when he criticises LAs as a whole.  This kind of blanket condemnation can be counterproductive.

What about Knowsley, the recipient of the excoriating letter?  There are just six secondary schools in Knowsley.  None is Good or better (one is yet to be inspected after it became an academy).  An improved rating in three or four of these would have a disproportionate effect on the proportion. 

According to Ofsted monitoring in 2015, Knowsley schools are improving:

1         Two schools which Require Improvement, St Edmond Arrowsmith, a VA Catholic school, and Kirkby High School, a sponsored academy whose predecessor school was Inadequate, are taking ‘effective action’ to improve.   

2         Knowsley Park, a community school, was judged Requires Improvement in December 2014.  No monitoring has taken place.  It plans to join the Heath Family Trust as an academy this year.  

3         The two Inadequate schools were taking ‘effective action’ towards the removal of special measures.  Halewood Academy, a converter academy which was Good on conversion, was receiving ‘high quality support’ from another academy trust.  All Saints’ Catholic (VA) High School was receiving ‘effective action’ from the local authority and Archdiocese.

4         Lord Derby Academy, a sponsored academy, has not been inspected since conversion in November 2013.  Its predecessor school was Inadequate.

It appears those four Knowsley secondary schools monitored by Ofsted are taking ‘effective action’ to improve.  You would expect Sir Michael and his regional director to know this.

Despite the effective action discovered by inspectors, tiny Knowsley is the usual suspect when Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants to attack a local authority.  And now she’s joined by the Chief HMI and his regional director.

That’s not to say Knowsley isn’t an area of concern, it is.  But this constant criticizing is likely to blast any green shoots of recovery.  Ofsted’s regional director noted the exodus of higher ability secondary age children from the borough.  His letter and Sir Michael’s remarks will do nothing to stem this.  If anything, they will increase it.  The area will be less attractive to high-quality leaders and teachers – the very teachers that Knowsley’s secondary schools need.

Rather than helping the borough improve, such condemnation could lock Knowsley in a cycle of decline.  And that is something nobody wants.

NOTES:  All reports are available on Ofsted’s website.  Inspection data for individual authorities at 31 December 2015 is here.  



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Shaun Whitfield's picture
Thu, 25/02/2016 - 12:22

I note that only one of the six Knowsley schools subject to Ofsted monitoring is maintained (Knowsley Park) and that is to convert to academy status. Also two are VA Catholic schools. So most are largely outside the 'control' of the LA. Furthermore the 'faith' schools involved, contrary to popular opinion, aren't the magic bullet David Blunkett and others would have us believe. Yet the national reporting of this story appeared to lay any failures at the door of the LA.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 26/02/2016 - 09:14

Shaun - the same is partly true of Oldham which also gets a kicking.  Nine of Oldham's 14 state secondaries are outside LA influence: 4 converter academies, 3 sponsored academies, one free school and one UTC.  The last two haven't been inspected yet.  Of the 12 schools that have been inspected the results are as follows:

2 Outstanding: one Foundation, one academy converter;

3 Good: one Community, two converters;

5 Require Improvement: 2 sponsored academies, 1 converter, 1 Foundation, one VA

2 in Special Measures: one Foundation, one sponsored academy.

It's impossible to judge the LA on the performance of the above or to conclude that one type of school is better than another  on such a small sample.  As far as the latter is concerned, the range of judgements covering all types of school mirrors that nationally: there are Good and better academies and non-academies, and less than Good academies and non-academies.

A pattern seems to be emerging, however, in the reported conclusions.  If an area's performance is weak it's the fault of the LA.  If schools improve, it's because they converted (except this isn't true - many academies have gone backwards and, as Henry has found, schools are more likely to become Inadequate or remain Indadequate if they're sponsored).


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