Ofsted is clearly becoming the linchpin in what looks like the increasing nationalisation of our school system. The idea of national teachers parachuted into the shires by officials in London in order to demonstrate good practice to under-performing teachers would have been unthinkable some years ago. But, as I have said before, those who are able to access resources can be in the driving seat when it comes to facilitating change.
For the past quarter of a century successive governments have denied local authorities the right to intervene in their local schools by ensuring that funds that could be used for such purposes were transferred into school budgets, only to see the cash all too often end up unused in school bank accounts. However, when faced with a school system across London in meltdown a decade ago the notional of a regional challenge was born, even if it didn’t extend to central government listening to what was being said about future pupil numbers and the need for extra places. Despite the success of London Challenge in raising achievement in the capital’s schools, the local evening paper, the Evening Standard, has still seen the need to become involved in a large-scale reading campaign across the city region, demonstrating the importance of community involvement in raising standards of learning.
For some time I have been pointing out the message about rural under-performance that Ofsted has finally acknowledged. Indeed, the poor performance in Oxfordshire and Oxford City in particular, has been a theme I initiated nearly three years ago now, and was coincidentally discussed at a public meeting in the city last night arranged by the city church of St Michael at the North Gate. We were reminded at that meeting that the Oxford City Council, although it has no education brief, was able to find £1.4 million to invest in projects to raise attainment in local schools, whereas the county would have been questioned as to such cash hadn’t been passed to schools?
I firmly believe that a world-class education system starts in the primary schools, where the foundations of learning are developed. Primary schools are essentially local in nature, and many in rural areas are the hub of their communities. For that reason I believe they need to be part of the local democratic structure and, as in London, the challenge should be for the locally elected members to lead the drive for improvement. If they fail, then perhaps an interim board should be imposed, but most local communities won’t fail given access to the appropriate resources.
Indeed, the idea of national superstars descending on schools to show how teaching is done properly must already be causing a film-maker somewhere to be salivating at the mouth. You can just see the plot; a talented but hapless outsider descends on remote village school to show teachers how to improve the literacy of their children …. I leave you to finish the plot. Much more important is to provide a local focus using the best in the way previous generations of local authority leaders developed advisory services, and in the 1980s the concept of advisory teachers, where best practice was spread using local professionals with a stake in their communities. All that was destroyed when, what is usually now referred to as the ‘middle tier’ of the education system, was dismantled by successive Conservative and Labour governments.
By all means parachute in outsiders if there is no local talent, but I doubt any local government area is totally devoid of successful teachers able to pass on their success to others. Such locally based schemes might also be cheaper than a visit from ‘the team from the Ministry’ but it wouldn’t fit into a model of a national school system where every school reports directly to Westminster and local authorities are too often cast as the villain of the piece.
For anyone who believes in local democracy, Ofsted may have joined me in identifying a serious problem, but their proposed solution is not one I can endorse.