Ofsted chief: Urgent action needed to improve schools

May 02 2017

COUNCILLORS from all parties have agreed that all 70 members of South Gloucestershire Council share a “moral imperative" to seek rapid improvements to secondary education in the district.

COUNCILLORS from all parties have agreed that all 70 members of South Gloucestershire Council share a “moral imperative" to seek rapid improvements to secondary education in the district.

Sixteen of the area’s 17 schools were below the national average for GCSE results for disadvantaged students last year - a situation described as “dire” and “unacceptable”. 

The issue was in the spotlight at a meeting of the council’s Children, Adults and Health Committee on April 5, attended by the regional director of Ofsted Bradley Simmons and  Jo Thomas, the deputy director of the office of the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC).

Mr Simmons said South Gloucestershire’s educational underperformance was his biggest concern in the whole of the South West and he had the area under “special supervision”.

He said he felt that school leaders and council officers had finally “grasped the nettle of accountability” and understood the scale of the problem, but he was waiting to see the impact of the measures put in place before deciding if he needed to write a warning letter.

Mr Simmons said that the fact that 15 of the 17 secondaries were academies, having opted out of the local authority, did not mean the council had no responsibility for them. It was part of the authority’s general duty to monitor the schools, hold them to account and intervene if necessary, he said.

“It is absolutely your place to challenge schools you don’t think are doing well enough,” he said.

Ms Thomas said the RSC Rebecca Clark, who has ultimate responsibility for overseeing all academies in the region, was absolutely clear that schools and multi academy trusts must work in partnership with local authorities. She was reassured by the renewed ambition and said the 2017 outcomes would be incredibly important for South Gloucestershire. 

Conservative councillor Ben Stokes said members had often felt frustrated and powerless to intervene in schools.

“We have a responsibility to monitor and comment but feel very remote from direct involvement,” he said. “We do have a lot of wisdom to offer.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Ian Blair said this had been  a problem even before academisation.

“It has been very difficult to get them [schools] to cooperate with one another in an effective way,” he said.

Will Roberts, chief executive of CSET, the multi-academy trust that runs the Castle School in Thornbury and Marlwood School in Alveston, and leader of the South Gloucestershire Education Partnership, which involves all schools, admitted that while there had been “a veneer of collaboration” in the past it had not been deep seated or focused on standards.

Now, he said, with many new headteachers in place and the multi academy trusts becoming established, a cultural change was taking place. Trusts, schools and individuals were working together to drive improvements with greater pace and intensity and tackle the legacy of underperformance. Checks were being carried out with a “timescale of weeks rather than years” and leaders were holding one another to account.

Labour councillor Gareth Manson and Pat Rooney said school leaders had been saying for two years that things would start to get better and it was time to see some new initiatives and a strategy that would bring results.

The funding crisis facing schools in South Gloucestershire also came under discussion. Debbie Porteous, from the Fair Funding for all Schools - South Glos said children in school now were the victims of poor political decisions and a lack of funding.

Nigel Varley, from the National Union of Teachers, called on councillors to support the parents’ campaign and put pressure on Ministers, who he said were “wobbling under mounting national pressure”.

Committee chairman Jon Hunt (Conservative) said the council had made it clear to Government that it  believed South Gloucestershire schools needed additional funding and had asked Ministers for a meeting, so far to no avail.

Labour’s councillor Adam Monk said councillors should not underestimate the strength of public anger about the underfunding of schools, which was outlined in a letter to all parents by Dave Baker, the chief executive of Olympus Academy Trust.