Monday 2 April 2012

Improved Brent pupil attainment highlights important role of local authority in school improvement

 Last week's Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Committee received a report that should stop advocates of the breaking up of the local education authority in their tracks. Enemies of democratically accountable community schools often talk of 'freeing them' from local authority control. An alternative phrase would be 'depriving them of local authority support'.

The report set out the academic standards in Brent schools in 2010-11. It shows that despite the borough having high levels of deprivation and pupil mobility that it achieves at or above national averages in many areas.  This an achievement of which pupils and schools should be proud. It should also be shouted from the roof tops of Chesterfield House and the Centre for Staff Development because the education authority and the School Improvement Service have contributed a great deal to that success. The report sets out the range of local authority support and how it challenges nurseries and schools to do even better.

This success is now threatened by schools opting out of the local authority and changes in the School Improvement Service which may see it drastically reduced, or even end, after April 2013.

In the Early Years and Foundation Stage the gap between Brent children and the national average narrowed to only two percentage points.  Indicating that Brent is making progress in overcoming the impact of poverty the permanence of children entitled to Free School Meals improved significantly and was above the national average. In terms of ethnicity the performance of Black Caribbean children has had a steady upward trend since 2008 and the gap between them and all children nationally is 6 percentage points. Somalian children performed strongly with a 19 percentage point improvement this year (39 over the past 5 years) to within 7 percentage points of the national cohort.

Few people would quarrel with the Service's priorities for the current year which are to:
  • Intensify the levels of support and challenge to settings requiring improvement.
  • Intervene more vigorously in private, voluntary and independent settings causing concern.
  • Promote the sharing of effective practice.
For this to continue there will need to be  adequate finance to fund quality staff in the future.

At Key Stage 1 attainment at Level 2+ (the main national benchmark) was in line with the national average in reading and writing and just below in mathematics. Brent standards rose in reading, writing and mathematics while national figures were static or in decline. There has been a steady improvement over the past 5 years.

Level 2B+ which predicts attainment at Level 4+ (the national expectation) at Key Stage 2, remained below the national average but the gap narrowed. (Reading 71/74, Writing 60/61, Mathematics 72/74).

Free School Meals pupils achieved better than FSM nationally in reading writing and mathematics at all levels. Again Somali pupils improved significantly across the subjects with girls accelerating at a faster rate than girls. Black Caribbean pupils were largely static and in line with the group nationally.  Special Educational Needs pupils with and without statements attained better than the national average.

The report attributes the improvements to the local authority's emphasis on raising standards at this key stage which started three years ago. They have put a number of projects in place in schools include Communication Language and Literacy Development (early literacy), Every Child Reader (this increases the impact of the Reading Recovery programme - expensive but highly effective) and Every Child Counts (this focuses on child thought in danger of not reaching Level 2 at the end of the key stage).

The authority has set out key priorities which include running successful literacy programmes, tailoring support to schools' individual needs; securing more Level 3 grades in mathematics and extending opportunities for speaking and listening in the subject.

Things were a little different at Key Stage 2 where there were unusually high results in the previous year. Attainment at Level 4+ was in line with national averages for English and mathematics combined and mathematics on its own was higher than the national average. Performance at Level 5, higher than the expectation for the average 11 year old, was above the national average for English and mathematics combined, and much higher in mathematics alone (40/35) with figures for boys of 43/37.

Pupils on Free School Meals performed better than FSM nationally in all subjects at Level 4+ and Level 5. I terms of ethnicity Indian origin pupils outperformed Indian pupils nationally for the second year running.  However there was a disappointing result for Black Caribbean pupils (-3 percentage points), Pakistani heritage pupils (-4) and Somali children (-8).

Support will be provided to schools to improve performance and will include action research projects and targeted support in both English and Mathematics. It will include central and school-based training.

The monitoring that the authority does is clearly vital in pointing up areas of under-performance and enabling it to devise specialist support quickly.  Local authority coordinated action research on issues such as the decline in achievement outlined above will be able to compare results in different schools, investigate good practice and provide staff development on proven successful strategies. The demise of the local authority and increased 'independence' of schools could deprive children of the benefits of this challenge and support . If there is no local authority will under-achieving children be over-looked?

I would be first to say that all is not perfect but there is a tremendous danger in throwing the baby out with the bathwater when schools are tempted by short-term financial benefits to go it alone and short-term expediency persuades the Council to reduce the School Improvement Service.

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