Friday, 28 June 2013

Christine Gilbert to head up Brent Education Commission as school improvement changes take place

Last week I briefly attended the farewell party for eighteen or so people who are leaving Brent's School Improvement Service, including Faira Ellks who has led the service for many years. Some had accepted early retirement, others redundancy, some have set up a consultancy and a few had been employed by Brent schools who will sell their expertise, such as Reading Recovery,  to other schools..

As I looked on I reflected on the years of experience and expertise in the group that has done so much to improve Brent schools, that will be lost as a consequence of this cull. Yes, a core service will remain but its quality is uncertain and yes, Brent headteachers have formed a Brent Schools a Brent Schools Partnership to support each other, but its quality is untested.

Interestingly these concerns were echoed by Rebecca Matthews, the new interim head of School Improvement, at the Brent Governors Conference this week. She said that the BSP raised issues that include:
  • lack of clarity on aspects such as accountability and leadership
  • the capacity among senior leaders of schools to undertake the tasks involved
  • the threat to a school's own standards when its senior leaders are engaged on collaborative activities with other schools
  • measuring and evaluating the impact of such interventions
  • engaging all schools so that they looked beyond themselves
As someone said at the farewell party, 'Schools won't know what they are missing until it is gone'.

Matthews also outlined the challenge of Ofsted's new emphasis on all schools being rated Good or Outstanding and the potential of a sudden drop in the rating of schools rated 'Good' under the old Ofsted criteria when inspected under the new framework, particularly if they had been coasting or facing new pressures since the previous Ofsted.

The authority itself faces the challenge of diminishing resources both human and financial which means a reduced core School Improvement team and the challenge of dealing with the mixed economy of school categories - maintained, academy, free - with lack of powers over the latter.

Rebecca Matthews said that as a consequence of diminishing resources a new core offer to schools would be made which would include:
  • A closer focus on 'need' rather than a universal offer
  • A lighter touch with 'secure' schools with the bulk of support going to schools in need of improvement
  • Brokering school to school support arrangements
  • Regular meetings to judge and recognise progress rather than once a year meeting
  • An emphasis on the speed of improvement
To address the wider challenge facing the authority a short-term Education Commission for Brent would be set up. Interestingly in the light of the appointment of Sara Williams as acting director of Children and Families, this will be headed up not by her but by the council's Interim Chief Executive, Christine Gilbert (former head of Ofsted) and Robert Hill from the University of London Institute of Education. They would look at the context of the performance of Brent schools, examine inspection evidence, visit schools and take evidence from stakeholders, including governors. They would identify the 'scope for innovative support for improvement' and work with the BSP and Teaching Schools on a sustainable shared model.

The Commission will report in November 2013.

In a way this can be interpreted as the authority attempting to claw back responsibility for  school improvement from the group that set up the BSP. With Ofsted and the DfE focusing on the role of local authority's when their area's schools are under-performing the LA has to demonstrate that it is proactive.

Cllr Michael Pavey, lead member for Children and Families, had a Q&A session,  in a candid reply to a question from me why Camden had managed to keep the maintained sector intact but Brent hadn't, said that the authority had 'allowed the best schools to walk away' and now faced losing 'our failing schools because of government legislation'.  He repeated his belief that the imposition of an Interim Excutive Board and academisation was the only viable solution for Copland High School because it was failing its pupils and the local authority did not have the resources to support it.. When asked about how Copland had been allowed by the local authority to get into that state he said, 'I can't say. That was before my remit'.

Unfortunately the situation at Copland, and precisely that last question, is likely to put Brent Council's school improvement arrangements under the Ofsted and DfE microscope. However, it also raises questions about the government policy where foundation schools, academies and free schools have autonomy with reduced powers of direct intervention by the LA whilst that at the same time they have an overall responsibility for the education and well-being of children in the borough.

Pavey agreed with a governor who said that governors had not been involved in the development of the Brent Schools Partnership despite having a strategic responsibility for school improvement, and should be better represented on the Brent Schools Partnership.  Only one place on the headteacher dominated management committee has been allocated to governors.

Interestingly,in his workshop, Luca Salice, Vice Chair of Camden Schools Forum, discussed the imposition of  IEBs by the local authority, not as a way of bringing about academisation, as in the Copland case, but as a way of the LA preventing a school academising against the wishes of teachers and parents.

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