The recent resignation of Ofsted Chair, David Hoare, for which this column called, should not obscure the fact that the Isle of Wight, which Hoare sneeringly described as an “inbred ghetto”, has been addressing serious problems of educational under-achievement for many years. Indeed, in February 2014, I had already committed to working with the Independent Council Administration to achieve cross-party support to drive up education standards.
Any successful school improvement strategy relies upon a strong partnership between all stakeholders with a shared commitment and common goals. At the heart of the partnership are relationships based upon trust, integrity and honesty. All partners (yes, including all political parties) on the Island share a strong desire to do better for Isle of Wight children and young people.
Solid progress has been achieved in turning around some of our schools which have suffered a generational problem of low parental, and sadly some low teacher, aspiration for our children. We now have in all our seven high schools, senior leaders of determination and vigour who accept that there are problems, know what those problems are, and are devising and implementing strategies to address them. We now benefit, for example, from the former Head of the school that featured in Channel 4 TV’S Educating Cardiff series; we have others who are senior Ofsted inspectors; and still others who have a solid track record in delivering rising standards.
The majority of our primaries are delivering improvements. However, children of the Island still fall behind the national average even before they commence primary school and too many of our primary school children are still not making the progress that they should. This inevitably leaves our high schools struggling to unlock their students’ full potential. The wise high schools are already reaching out to their feeder primaries to support them in their own development and to loan teachers for some of the more specialist subjects, science being one. Reading outcomes in our primaries have improved, writing is now above the national average, but, whilst maths is improving, it needs to go up a gear.
The road to recovery started in 2013 with the decision of the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove (following a devastating report by Ofsted on the performance of the Isle of Wight Council as the local education authority (LEA)) to require Hampshire County Council be appointed to oversee and deliver the LEA functions. That partnership with Hampshire has delivered real benefits to the Island for some fairly simple reasons.
School improvement strategy has to be based upon a forensic understanding of each school’s current standards for all groups of children. The performance data needs to be set alongside an accurate evaluation of quality of teaching, learning and the curriculum. The size of Hampshire compared to the Island means that its officers are specialists. Specialists in school finance, school facilities, school transport, school admissions, teacher recruitment and development, and education standards. Previously, the small size of the Island meant that many of our officers were generalists. For the first time in years, proper data and evidence were collected, collated and analysed so that decisions could be taken on the basis of reliable information, not guesswork or assumption.
Hampshire officers were also able to step in and deliver what had been lacking in a school reorganization: adequate support for middle school teachers and heads who, as a result of the reorganization from three tier to two tier schooling, were in some cases outside their comfort zones and experience. Ofsted were scathing in their report about this lack of support, a lack of support about which the Island MP, Andrew Turner, had consistently warned the then Conservative administration to no avail.
Teachers improve their craft by observing other teachers and reflecting how to improve their own practice through discussion with skilled professionals and focused actions. Headteachers improve their effectiveness by sharing ideas with colleague headteachers and other education professionals.
An effective Local Authority knows where the best practice is and facilitates and contributes to high quality professional development focused on the things that really matter – leadership of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum.
Impact on pupil achievement and learning is everything, so time is invested in keeping a focus on evaluating improvement actions and refining next steps. When the partnership on the Island began three years ago 25 per cent of schools were judged inadequate by Ofsted. Now that statistic is two per cent, in line with the national average. A year after the partnership began Ofsted inspected school improvement on the Island and found arrangements to be effective.
Attendance has improved from being the worst in the country to being broadly in line with national averages (though some of this may be down to the construction of a seven-foot-high security fence around one of the high schools which had previously been open access) and exclusions are reducing. Improved teaching is leading to greater engagement in the classroom and student behaviour is improving.
We have elections for all Isle of Wight Council seats in May 2017. Of one thing the Island can be sure, namely that should the Island Conservatives take back control from the current dysfunctional, Labour-backed so-called “Independent” administration in May, then education improvement will continue apace. We are developing a strategy with the leading national education charity TeachFirst to enable them to make substantial investments on the Island, to partner with Hampshire and our Island Senior Leadership Teams, particularly in the high schools.
My personal vision is to turn the Island into a beacon of national excellence in teacher training and career development.
Our local employers, particularly in the specialist technology sectors, are crying out for well-educated young men and women who can train up for skilled jobs. I will be working to partner with universities to deliver Level 4 apprenticeships based on the Island, so that our youngsters can benefit directly from university level qualifications in technical subjects just as they can already study on the Island for a BA in Commercial Music through Platform One, our specialist music college, under the auspices of Chichester University.
Under a Conservative administration, for the foreseeable future, Hampshire will remain our valued partner in this race forwards; time is short, our children have only one chance. Which doesn’t mean that there are no disagreements between elected Members and Hampshire officers: there certainly are, but that’s because we’re all so passionate about the urgency of addressing the challenge that our Island faces. Passions sometimes run high because complacency would be completely unacceptable.
As an Island community we will continue to challenge ourselves to deliver a paradigm shift in aspirations, expectations and outcomes for our children. We have begun that journey and the relentless pace of progress, the urgency of the need to deliver will be maintained by a future Conservative Administration in the interests of all our children.