Thursday, 12 June 2014

Education Commission honestly critiques Brent's record but does it have the answers?

Regular readers of Wembley Matters will be aware of concerns over the fragmentation of education in the borough as free schools are proposed and academy conversions take place. The provision of additional school places has been ad hoc and often last minute and led by the Regeneration  department of the Council rather than Children and Families.

An Education commission set up by Chief Executive Christine Gilbert, a former head of Ofsted, is reporting to the next Cabinet on Monday.  The report is to be welcomed but needs a much wider discussion. It is hard to see how how its far-reaching recommendations can be given proper consideration at a meeting with much else on the agenda and a lead member for Children and Families only a few weeks into her post.

The introduction starkly sets out the issues which in effect also constitutes a critique of the lack of leadership on education in the borough, a matter also raised on this blog.
Brent boasts impressive results in early years education and at key stage 1. Its GCSE results are close to the London average and its key stage 5 results are higher than the London average. But these achievements obscure less flattering statistics. 

Given the excellent education the youngest children in Brent receive, it would be reasonable to expect progress would be equally impressive by the time they reach key stage 2. Unfortunately, it is not. Brent lags the London average at key stage 2 and its position relative to the other 32 boroughs is getting worse: it slipped from 15th place in 2012 to 22nd last year. This trend cannot be allowed to continue. 

A few years ago, Brent outperformed most London authorities at GCSE, now it barely manages to be average. Although overall its youngsters perform creditably, disproportionately few of them get the highest grades. And even though a third of the authority’s secondary schools are classed as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted – compared to less than a quarter nationally – it has the highest proportion of ‘Inadequate’ schools in London. 

Unfortunately, these failings are magnified by a lack of shared vision and the absence of a strong, energetic relationship between the local authority and its schools. All want the best for the children in their care but too often good intentions are unsupported by good practice. And where good practice exists it is too rarely shared.
In short, education in Brent is muddling through; scrambling reactively to avoid immediate problems when it should be planning ahead, pulling together and setting its sights on becoming one of the highest performing boroughs in London so that children and young people thrive in all Brent Schools.
There are 34 recommendations in the report which I reproduce below.  The full report needs careful consideration but two things immediately strike me. One is the contradiction betweem the authority cutting back on its School Improvement Service whilst at the same time wanting to get to know its schools better and have early warning of any difficulties. Will handing over responsibility to the Brent Schools Partnership, an organisation at an early stage of development, be sufficient to address this problem. There is a worrying absence of any reference to the role of School Improvement Partners (SIPs), the 'inspectors' of old, in the school improvement process, and consideration of their effectiveness and quality control.

Secondly, given the fact that Crest Academy, City Academy and now Alperton Academy have received less than Good, and sometimes Inadequate Ofsted ratings, and the failure of two planned Free Schools to open, is the proposed cooperation with academy and free school providers a viable option?

The impact of cuts and staffing uncertainties is honestly assessed:
Feedback to the Commission indicated that the Council’s approach towards many issues is not sufficiently strategic or ambitious. It is described as often being too reactive and too late.
The Commission was given the example of the abolition of assessment levels, as announced by the Secretary of State. There seems little preparation for this and, consequently, a risk that each school will act separately, resulting in a lack of common language about assessment and learning across the borough.
Another example is the lack of forward planning for free schools meals capacity.

Head teachers believe that, to some extent, significant reductions in education staffing, particularly at managerial levels, have made this inevitable.

Another factor is the lack of continuity of staff within the Council. Lots of interim posts add to the challenges of long-term strategic planning and reduce the drive to implement agreed priorities.
Establishing a staffing structure, which has resilience and continuity, should be a priority for the new Director, Children and Young People


Education Strategy and Leadership 

1.     The local authority should set out a clear statement about its own role, within the changing education landscape, for discussion with the education community. This should be rooted in ambitious aspirations for and expectations of Brent Children and Brent Schools. The statement should underline the moral imperative for all schools in the borough to have shared ownership for the education of all children in every Brent school.
2.     The role of the governing body as an important force for support, challenge and improvement should be recognised and the local authority should invest in the development of governors.
3.     A strategic group involving the principal education partners should be established, chaired by the new Director of Children and Young People, to drive forward the education strategy in conjunction with key education partners.
4.     This new strategic group should develop and agree the vision for education in the borough. This must not be a protracted process. The resulting vision should lead to a strategy which contains a few key goals that are owned by all key participants and result in well-defined, agreed actions.
5.     The local authority, in collaboration with schools themselves, should set out challenging but achievable excellence targets demonstrating high expectations for children in the borough. The Commission believes that these excellence targets should include an expectation that all schools in the authority will be good or better within three years and that outcomes at key stages 2 and 4 will be at least 2% above the London average within three years.
6.     The Leader of the Council and the Lead Member for Education should establish a forum for meeting on a termly basis with a group of representative head teachers to ensure the education strategy is being taken forward and to reinforce the importance of education as part of the political agenda of the council. 

Planning School Places 

7.     The local authority should produce an agreed strategy for place planning. The quality of education and the potential for school improvement in any expansions should be the foremost priority when determining the programme of expansion.
8.     The Council should appoint one head of service to be responsible for drawing up and implementing all aspects of the place planning strategy across the two departments that currently have responsibilities for place planning.
9.     The new Director of Children and Young People should urgently review the authority’s arrangements for projecting the future school population and the geographical spread across the Borough to ensure they are rigorous and fit for purpose.
10. The local authority should be proactive in encouraging the best schools in Brent and free school providers to set up new schools in areas where extra places are needed. The Council should encourage open competition in order to establish new schools.
11. The place planning strategy, and future updates about its progress, should be kept under review and progress should be discussed with school leaders, chairs of governors, academies, and faith and community groups, on a regular basis. 

Knowing Brent Schools
12. To support school improvement, the local authority should put in place a system to provide each school with a picture of how they perform against both local and national indicators. These would be a range of quantitative and qualitative indicators. The process for designing this system, in particular the evidence used, should be co-produced with schools, both head teachers and governors.
13. To support their role as champions and guardians of the needs and interest of children, the local authority should produce an annual report that should be easily accessible to parents and the local community. This should set out achievements and progress in education in Brent, as well as highlighting challenges and areas for development. It should be sent to the governing bodies of all schools in Brent as well as academy trusts, Ofsted and the Secretary of State.
14. The local authority should urgently investigate, with schools, the introduction of a data tracking system that can be used to risk assess the progress and performance of schools within the school year as well as at the end of the year. This system should be co-produced with head teachers and school governors.
15. Through the new strategic group, an agreed programme of peer reviews should be established between schools, drawing on best practice in models elsewhere. The peer review model should influence Brent’s current Rapid Improvement Groups (RIG) process. Regular development opportunities should be provided for teachers to observe good practice in other schools.
16. The local authority and schools should devise a programme of activities to showcase excellence and interesting practice in education in Brent
17. The local authority, in conjunction with the Brent Schools Partnership and teaching schools, should publish case studies of good practice in local schools, before the end of 2014. This should give a clear picture of what good and outstanding schools look like in practice.
18. An annual schools awards scheme should be established in 2014/15 to recognise and celebrate practice in Brent schools. 

Promoting and supporting school - to - school networks 

19. As part of its changing role, the local authority should work together with all education partners to build the capacity and effectiveness of the Brent School Partnership. This should include its ability to commission teaching schools and other excellent providers in Brent.
20. The Brent School Partnership and the local authority should be encouraged to learn lessons for school partnerships from other authorities and from families of schools, such as chains, federations and trusts.
21. Mechanisms should be put in place across all schools in the borough for school-to- school challenge and support in order to improve practice and build shared ownership for the education of all children in Brent schools. The local authority should play a key role, encouraging schools to consider the benefits of cluster and other partnership arrangements and to break down any barriers that may prevent such collaboration.
22. The local authority should provide funding to the Brent School Partnership to appoint a full time Director, or coordinator, for two years with a formal review built into the end of year 1.
23. The new strategic group (see recommendation 2) should work with the Brent School Partnership steering group to agree a set of priorities and a costed programme for action in the school year, 2014-2015, for all schools. The local education authority should provide financial support to incentivise collaboration and work in clusters or networks. It should also agree a process for how the Brent School Partnership and teaching schools might be commissioned to provide and broker support for schools causing concern, including use of the Rapid Improvement Group process.

Providing challenge to address weaknesses
24. There should be more forensic examination of the schools that are assessed as being at risk or requiring improvement through investigation of teaching and its impact on learning in the classroom.
25. There is a need for more effective support for schools that are struggling, drawing on the wider capacity and expertise of other Brent schools.
26. The local authority should be bolder in deploying executive heads, NLEs, LLEs, teaching schools, federations and academy sponsors to ensure that schools judged inadequate or requiring improvement have the necessary leadership and governance expertise to drive improvement.
27. The local authority needs to identify underperformance at an early stage and to be prepared to be more robust in how it addresses concerns, including issues relating to underperformance in leadership. 

Improving school governance 

28. All schools in Brent should review their governance arrangements and consider reconstituting their governing body in line with the new regulations.
29. The local authority should complete and implement its review for nominating local authority governors with a view to speeding up the process, drawing in a wider pool of talent and making the skills and capacity of nominees the primary criteria for nomination.
30. The local authority should produce guidance for schools on conducting audits of governor skills.
31. The local authority should give greater priority within the governor development programme to understanding and using data and to supporting the role of governors in school improvement.
32. The local authority should broker collaborations between pairs of governing bodies to scrutinise each other’s performance data and to engender confidence and skill in providing constructive challenge.
33. The local authority should look at opportunities for governors to observe how each other works, perhaps on a cluster or network basis, and through developing contacts in other boroughs to observe and learn about good practice.
34. The best chairs of governors should be encouraged to seek accreditation as National Leaders of Governance and be deployed to support other chairs.


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