Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy, and is an Isle of Wight councillor.
Harry Phibbs recently picked up on an article in The Economist that highlighted the deeply disappointing education standards on the Isle of Wight. As the Education Spokesman for the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council, nothing in that article came as a surprise to me.
The hard-hitting article held up to the Island a mirror which clearly reflected collective disservice to our children spanning decades. The piece was also a broadcast to businesses of the world that the Island might not be a good place to invest if you need a skilled workforce or would need to send your children to our local schools (with a few notable exceptions). We must deliver change in the interests of our whole community.
Things had reached such a low level that when first elected to the Council in May 2013, I met with the Cabinet Member for Education in the Independent controlling group, Cllr Richard Priest, to agree that we had to work together to address the problems which beset so many of the Island’s schools and the consequent educational underachievement. Putting party politics on one side, we work together to understand the facts about where our schools are today, to be clear where we want them to be in future, and to agree the steps needed to achieve that improvement.
Last year, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, rightly instructed that responsibility for delivering the Island’s children’s services (both education and child welfare) be handed over to Hampshire County Council and our two councils established a unique partnership. Since then officers have been engaging with all schools of all categories, offering them support and challenge and collating and analysing data on teaching standards and educational outcomes.
Much of that data had not previously been collected, so many historic decisions were at best just well-intentioned stabs in the dark: hardly a surprise that some of the changes, or the way they were carried out, were felt by schools to have aggravated rather than solved problems. We are determined to establish a more co-operative partnership with and between schools.
The scale of the problem is daunting. Results achieved by young people in tests and examinations remain below national averages for most measures. Many of our children, particularly the more vulnerable, begin to fall behind at pre-school level; and levels of absenteeism are among the worst in the country.
In our primary schools, insufficient children make the necessary progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. In secondary schools, many children continue to fail to make the progress that children nationally make with only 49% achieving the benchmark of 5+ A*-C GCSE grades including English and mathematics. The better news is that this headline figure has improved in 2013.
Only one of our six state secondary schools, Christ the King College (our joint Catholic and Church of England high school) is rated “good” by Ofsted. It shines like a beacon to the rest of the Island proving that higher standards can be achieved locally.7
In terms of children’s services more widely, it is to the shame of the whole Island that our most vulnerable children continue, in the professional judgment of Hampshire officers, to be “unsafe” due to failings in the systems that were in place.
Accepting these flaws in education provision and children’s services is not politically easy, because until May 2013 the Council was under Conservative control. But that is where we are.
Where we want to get to is that all Island children attend good (or better) schools and have the chance to achieve the highest standards whether academically or in vocational skills. This requires improvement in educational attainment from pre-school to post-16 level across the Island.
Things are now changing. We have in place many Senior Leadership Teams who acknowledge the problems that they have inherited and who benefit from regular Ofsted inspections, supported by both Island and Hampshire County Council expertise, to ensure that they identify the particular weaknesses in their school and have a School Improvement Plan that is fit for purpose.
Encouragingly, there is a sense of optimism now on the Island and a determination to do better. The partnership between the Isle of Wight Council and Hampshire has the promise of success and that is recognised by both DfE and Ofsted. The key role not only of teachers and headteachers, but of parents and children themselves is acknowledged. Surveys have revealed that it is not our children who lack aspiration, which makes it even more uncomfortable for the Island more widely since collectively we have clearly let them down and failed historically to give them the opportunities to which they should have been entitled.
We now have an Action Plan which will continually be refined and improved, and which addresses every specific concern raised by Ofsted of the Isle of Wight Council.
A new Schools and Educational Attainment Support Panel is being established drawing in experts from across the Island and Hampshire to ensure that the data now available can be analysed and improvement closely monitored. It will be a constructive and effective forum; ensuring that plans deliver progress. The Cabinet Member for Education has reached out to a wide range of stakeholders to secure their involvement. I welcome that.
Michael Gove and Lord Nash have been very supportive of Cllr Priest and myself as we address these problems. Indeed, Michael has written personally to our Island MP, Andrew Turner, to welcome our cross party cooperation and determination. The Secretary of State may be absolutely assured that we will not be diverted in our determination that our period of service will be marked by partnership working in which substantial improvements are delivered.
My own children suffered as a result of the inadequacies of the Island’s education system, I am determined that my grandson, and the rest of the Island’s children, will receive the best education possible. Party politics will simply have to wait until the problems are sorted – that is true Conservatism in action.