Education Nov 21 2010

Why it is strong heads and teachers, supportive parents, good governance and accountability that matter

Last week I stood down as a governor of my local primary school. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I became a parent at the school in 1991. Our eldest son was offered his nursery place in the week Margaret Thatcher resigned. I became an elected parent governor when he joined the reception class in 1992, became chair in 2000 and stood down from that post this September, a year after that same child left university. I believe the story of my time at Gospel Oak Primary School has lessons for many of us as we wrestle with how to get a high quality school system that works well for all our children.

When we became parents at the school, it was at the tail end of a glorious period in its history.  Gospel Oak had been the school of choice of many affluent, influential local parents throughout the sixties and seventies. Two members of Harold Wilson’s cabinet sent their children there and Michael Palin, another local resident and parent, apparently used to joke that Gospel Oak and William Ellis school, where my sons later went and where I now also chair the governing body, were the ‘ Eton and the Guards’ of North London.

As is so often the case, the school had been led by a charismatic head in its heyday, only to be followed by a less effective successor. A slow exodus of parents in the late eighties had left the school increasingly vulnerable to the new ‘market’ in education introduced by the Thatcher government. We didn’t ‘choose’ the school. It was the closest to where we lived and it never crossed our minds to look elsewhere. I became a governor largely out of guilt. I had two small children, a part time job as a feature writer on a national newspaper; I was co-writing a book and managing a hectic freelance career. Becoming a governor would, I believed, ensure I knew something about what was going on in my children’s daily lives.

I have already touched on some aspects of what happened next, most recently in this column in Guardian Education, and some years ago in a film The Best for My Child, made for Channel Four about school choice.Within months of joining the governing body, it was clear there was something badly wrong. The school was led by a weak, but devious, head teacher who conspired to let us know as little as possible about what was going on. Governors meetings would often run late into the night, but go nowhere in a grim war of attrition between newer governors who wanted more information about what was really going on in their children’s classrooms, and those who colluded with the head to keep us in our place.

We were one of the first schools to be inspected in 1994, under the then newish Ofsted regime, and the result was shocking, but with hindsight not surprising. Inspectors shone a bright light into some very murky corners and revealed a dysfunctional, poorly led institution, in which many class teachers were floundering and pupils failing. One former parent recently reminded me that a Year Six teacher, who specialised in art, ‘didn’t believe in teaching Maths’

The then head departed, ironically to buy a small prep school at which the son of one of my oldest school friends, who couldn’t face putting her children in a state sector, was a pupil. Since then I always take with a large grain of salt the claims of universal excellence in the private sector.

We, meanwhile, rather naively thought that our problems were over. They weren’t. The then chair of governors, who we had fought to get elected, removed his children from the school, along with several other governors. Over the next six years the school haemorrhaged parents, teachers and pupils. Our FSM numbers doubled from 27% to over 60% and we slumped to the bottom of the league tables. Heads came and went. My two predecessors as chair of governors fought valiantly to keep the school afloat as confidence in the local community plummeted. Vacant places meant we were taking in pupils that other schools found ingenious ways of rejecting.

I got used to other local parents averting their eyes when I told them where our children were at school. My lowest moment came during the 1997 election campaign, when I was working for the then leader of the opposition Tony Blair. On a day off from the campaign and out with my third child, yet to start at the school, I ran in to two other parents. The most recent league tables had revealed that barely half the pupils had reached the required KS2 level in Maths (that figure is now over 80%).

Would everything be OK, they asked me tentatively. The truth was I didn’t really know the answer. What I did know was that if I appeared to be losing faith, so would they. I did my best to remain positive and encouraging. I often think of that moment and my immense gratitude to those parents, and others, who stuck loyally by the school. I am still friends with many of them. Nearly all our children have finished university  and still report their days at Gospel Oak as being amongst the happiest of their lives, although as one friend pointed out recently that may have been because they never did any work.

However my own anecdotal research suggests that our children didn’t suffer unduly. They have gained hugely from being educated with children from every part of our local community; nearly all have gone on to do broadly similar degrees, at the same universities (including Oxford and Cambridge),  as the children of those parents who bailed for the private or more selective state schools. When Professor Charles Desforges conducted his research reviews into the influence of home background on the outcomes of primary age children, he concluded that what went on in the home was six times more important than what happened at school. That is no excuse for failing schools but it is a recognition that the children of aspirant, educated parents with books, conversation and a positive home learning environments can overcome  some weak teaching. The reason the rest of us stuck with Gospel Oak was that it was clear the children who didn’t have those advantages were being short changed.

Making the school better became almost an obsession for me, and a group of other parents. This wasn’t just about our children, it was about our community and the life chances of the less well off. I often think about those days when I hear politicians banging on about the Big Society . It has been around a lot longer than some politicians care to admit. The parents and governors at Gospel Oak were one of Cameron’s ‘little platoons’ long before he dreamed up the Big Society as an election slogan and what is more, we know that our particular brand of community activism worked, and it didn’t need an outside provider, a profit making company or a sponsor. Our school is still a local authority community school.

Much has been written about the iniquities of both Ofsted, testing and the league tables and the negative effect the latter have on the breadth and quality of education children receive in their later primary years. However there is no doubt that the desire to scrape ourselves off the bottom of the league tables, and to get a clean bill of health from Ofsted, were strong incentives for us to improve. So accountability matters, maybe not enshrined in such high stakes testing or in an inspection routine that values exam and test results above all else, but parents and others in the wider community, including future parents, have a right to know how their schools are doing.

However the idea that competition and ‘the tools of the market’ alone will deliver good outcomes for all children is fanciful. It just won’t happen without great teachers  and support staff and, more importantly, without great heads with high expectations and the ability to motivate and manage the performance of adults and pupils in their schools.

And it probably won’t happen while we have so many ways for individual schools to use ‘the tools of the market’ to manipulate their intakes. Good schools need balanced intakes and a critical mass of children who are interested in learning. Schools that cream off either the most aspirant and supportive parents, or the most able pupils, within their local communities, deprive other local schools of that vital mix.

Throughout all my time as a parent and governor I have watched all the escape routes and tricks used by parents and schools to manipulate admissions criteria to their advantage. I am proud that at Gospel Oak we got better without doing this and has always taken the children who live closest to the school regardless of race, faith, social class or special needs. That rich and diverse mix is one of the things that makes the school great today. One of the greatest dangers I see in the increased ‘freedom’ and autonomy being offered to schools now, is the potential for more subtle social and academic selection, leading to more,  not less, segregation in our  communities.

Six months after I finally became chair in 2000, our third head in ten years resigned. The school had got better and our Ofsted ratings improved, but all school success is a fragile commodity -remember that when you hear Michael Gove claim this week that some schools don’t need to be inspected. It has become fashionable to rubbish the overly bureaucratic, centrally directed initiatives of the Blair /Brown governments, but on balance they were right for schools like ours.

New buildings, extra resources and extended services were rightly matched by a requirement for better teaching, leadership, higher expectations, more rigour, accountability and transparency. Maybe only those of us who remember the late eighties and early nineties fully appreciate what has been done. I think I can write the script for what will happen in schools where more freedom is given, where light touch or nonexistent inspection is required, particularly if a good head or chair of governors is replaced by a  less competent one. Autonomy is a great tool in the hands of a good head, but will be a disaster in the case of weak ones.

School governance has improved enormously since the early 1990s but that is partly because governors are held directly accountable via the current Ofsted framework. We have so much more information than we had back then but if we don‘t use it to challenge our schools effectively, we get rapped over the knuckles, quite rightly.

However in spite of our improving governance the holy grain of being a good / outstanding was still eluding us at Gospel Oak. Why? Because we still hadn’t found the right head teacher. By the time we were embarking on our final head teacher recruitment process in a decade, I had become chair and had made a mental note NOT to appoint until we found the right candidate. It is a risky strategy when parents and teachers are clamouring for an appointment, but worth the wait, rather than risking the damaging and disruptive process of parting company with the wrong appointee.

The first field was disappointing but we had recently starting working with an excellent link inspector at our local authority, an ex head who was an advisor to our recruitment process. I could see that he was as lukewarm about the candidates as me, and in a throwaway line, as we agonised about whether to re-run the process, he mentioned that the school had such potential that he was tempted to go for the job himself. That was enough for me. We wrapped up for the day and I e-mailed him at 8 am the next morning to ask if he would consider applying for the job. He immediately agreed and was subsequently apppointed. The school has gone from strength to strength, the governors’ decision not to take second best, to understand fourth time round what type of leader we needed for our school, was vindicated.

There is now so much evidence about the vital role strong leaders play in schools, the latest being this Mc Kinsey Report, yet the importance of leadership both by the head and governors is perpetually sidelined in the  political debate. At my last governors meeting I was asked to sum up the story of Gospel Oak for newer members, and inevitably ended up by singling out the qualities that our present head Alan Seymour has brought to the school; consistently high expectations, an ability to delegate but performance manage staff, teaching and behaviour rigorously, a belief that all children are equal, regardless of their background, race or class, and a strong sense of social justice. We don’t top the league tables but the quality of teaching and behaviour is consistently good, we offer a broad and enriching curriculum which isn’t simply driven by coaching for KS 2 tests; parents, pupils and staff are fully engaged in the school’s life. One reason why I felt so angry at the London teacher who spoke at the Conservative party conference about the ‘excuses culture’ rife in schools today was that, while an ‘excuses culture’ may be prevalent at her school, it isn’t at ours and in many others across the country.

I am standing down now because we have a good governing body; the school will face new challenges in the years to come, including the recruitment of another head teacher in due course when the current incumbent retires and I believe getting the next chair in place first is a smart move. I am not giving up altogether, having recently taken on the chair of another school which has been through a difficult period. I hope my experience at Gospel Oak will help to shape that schools bright future.

And I am taking many important lessons with me, all of which are at the forefront of my mind as we await yet another White Paper, another Education Bill, another reconfiguration of Ofsted, more changes to teacher training and school funding.

It is probably right to re-focus Ofsted’s attention more robustly on teaching and learning, but equally important not to give up on the other roles schools play in the lives of communities and children who lack the cultural and economic advantages  more affluent children can take for granted.

Leadership matters and that mean heads and governors. Both need to be accountable, not just to current parents in the school, or indeed a narrow band who may be given their own school under this administration’s policies, but to the wider community.  Without strong and consistent leadership, it is unlikely that any school will get strong and consistent teaching. But my observation from the chair is that being a head in an unenviable and lonely task, like conducting a huge orchestra day in day out, constantly seeking improvement and then sustaining that process.

And finally parents do matter. One reason our school survived and didn’t just go under was because parents became empowered. They believed things could get better, they joined the governing body , they kept the equally vibrant PTA alive. My belief in the power of parents to effect change in this way is one reason why I, with others, have now set up the Local Schools Network for people who want to support their local schools rather than rush off and start new ones.

I deplore the idea that the right course of action, in our case, would have been to let the school die. This idea, which has been around since the quasi market in education was introduced in the late 1980s, was resurrected in this Telegraph article previewing the forthcoming White Paper and suggesting that a national funding formula could help unpopular schools to ‘die out’.

Schools aren’t shops that can open and close at will with little consequence other than for the unfortunate proprietor. They are living, breathing institutions and a long slow death is a very unpleasant experience for the children left in them, who will usually be the offspring of the least vocal in society.

Outstanding leadership, good teaching, decent facilities, good governors and (as far as possible) socially and academically mixed intakes may be more prosaic than ‘free’ schools and eye catching, though barely proven, initiatives from oversees, but if we could ensure every school had those key features who would want anything ‘ new’? We would finally be giving most parents what they really want – a good local school.

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