Wednesday, February 26, 2014
When Norfolk County Council looked for a model to improve the county’s schools, it found inspiration in the London Challenge, a government-backed programme which since 2003 has helped propel the capital to the top of the national league tables.
When Ofsted held a closed meeting with parents as part of its 2001 inspection of Southfields Community College, one mum stood up and complained vocally about her experiences.
Anita Neale told the inspectors her son Luke was unhappy and doing work he had done in year five, the school took 10 days to tell her he had played truant, and it was all but impossible to contact the school.
Headteacher Jacqueline Valin invited her to join the board of governors, which she now chairs.
Ms Neale said: “It had a terrible reputation in the local area. It was everything – results and behaviour.”
She said the parents now want their children to come to the school, and it has a very good reputation, especially for special educational needs. She said a key part of the London Challenge was an attitude that school leaders are not frightened of outsiders coming in and challenging them.
“You have got to have the leaders who have good foresight. They have got to have aspirations. They know where they want to be and London Challenge allowed them to find their way to get there. It was supporting them in their decisions,” she said.
Asked what Norfolk could learn from the challenge, she added: “Your heads have to be really open, and not frightened to change.”
One school which benefited was Southfields Community College in Wandsworth, which became Southfields Academy in 2012.
Although it was graded “good” by Ofsted, London Challenge knocked on principal Jacqueline Valin’s door in 2003 to say its results were not good enough. Then, 11pc of pupils achieved five GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths. Now, the figure is 63pc.
Year 12 health and social care student Ebyan Ahmed said when she was at primary school no-one wanted to go to Southfields. Now everyone does.
She said: “From year seven to now they have been pushing you to your extreme limits to get your grades. We have been trained since year seven for the outside world.”
Like Norfolk, Southfields had a number of factors it could have used to excuse low standards: half its pupils speak English as an additional language, 60-70pc have some sort of special educational need, and 35pc are entitled to free school meals.
But when Ms Valin talks about the London Challenge, two themes reoccur: no excuses are accepted, and schools must be receptive to being challenged.
She said the main support was not financial, but came in the form of advisor David Woods. He would come in one or two days each half term to talk through what she and senior leaders were doing, and challenge them.
“We were not frightened by being challenged. There was no fear with the challenge. We were not being hit over the head with a hammer – the support was there,” she said.
His first question was why no-one was responsible for standards, and on his advice a deputy head for standards was put in place, which Mrs Valin described as “the key appointment”. A deputy head for teaching and learning soon followed.
The focus was on improving accountability at the top and cascading it down the structure. Mr Woods made governors more aware of how to hold school leaders to account, and ask what they were working on. Mrs Valin said: “The challenge that came from David is now innate in what we do, and he gave us the confidence to challenge ourselves.”
The London Challenge also put her in touch with other London headteachers from whom she could not only learn from, but also be challenged and supported. It made London school leaders part of a club, and she said was proud to be a London teacher.
When Ofsted reviewed the London Challenge in 2010, it found a feeling of responsibility among school staff for all London children, not just those at their own school.
That continues, and every half term conferences allow schools to showcase what they do, listen to others, and make links.
Ms Valin is now a recognised national leader of education, and says she has a “tremendous moral purpose” to use what she has learned to challenge and improve other schools. Norfolk County Council’s own two-year Norfolk to Good to Great strategy aims to replicate this sense of community and school-to-school support in an effort to have a system that will keep improving itself when the programme itself ends.
Asked what Norfolk could learn, Ms Valin said: “You could take what London Leadership did by sharing good practice. It’s not about competition but collaboration. As soon as you collaborate, every school moves up.
“They have got to find this core team of local leaders and make sure they are given the training and support to challenge and support each other.”
She reiterated the ‘no excuses’ rule, and has simple advice for any Norfolk teacher who “whinges” about the challenges of being in a rural area or a coastal town: work elsewhere.
What lessons should Norfolk learn from elsewhere? Email email@example.com
What are the main issues facing education in Norfolk, and what is being done about them? See tomorrow’s EDP.