East Meets Westminster: Seven-point action plan is only the schools’ first step

SUFFOLK is failing its children.

In a region of the country which does not suffer from widespread poverty it is disgraceful that the county’s 11-year-olds should languish just third from bottom of the exam league tables.

But that is the awful reality. The vital question now is how can the results improve?

Yesterday Suffolk County Council – whose chief executive Deborah Cadman and cabinet member with responsibility for education Graham Newman have been left rocked by last week’s results – set out a seven-point plan to turn around primary school attainment.

There are already initiatives like Raising the Bar – vigorously supported by the East Anglian Daily Times but still in its infancy – and Maths Challenge – launched by this newspaper and backed by Prime Minister David Cameron. These programmes are honourable and will, in time, make a big difference.

But surely those in the county and beyond it now need to act – most worryingly of all is the improvement of other counties where as Suffolk ’s children’s ability seems to stagnate year on year.

So what to do? The council’s action plan is a vital move but it is only the first tiny, tentative step on a long and arduous trek. There are several proposals to make further proposals – that is fine at this stage but firm solutions must be in place very soon, now is not the time to swing open the doors of another talking shop.

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Suffolk’s headteachers and education professionals must not be back in this position in 12 months time – but even more importantly yet another group of children must not be failed.

Two of the action plan points scream out above the others:

n Provide to all schools at the January briefings a toolkit of school improvement resources drawn from the targeted support to schools which have raised standards and rates of progress.

n Work with the Department for Education (DfE) to find appropriate academy solutions for schools “below floor” or in Ofsted categories.

Firstly ignore the awful council-speak – “toolkit”, “below floor”. Hopeful no 11-year-old would dare to write in such a dull and mechanised way, hopefully they are being taught the beauty of language and words rather than this stifled version. But once past this awful abuse of English it appears some schools might be about to get more of something – unlikely at this stage to be cash sadly. Instead there are plans to share expertise.

And this joining-up of those who have overcome difficulties and those who are still struggling is a tried and trusted way of dragging up standards across all kinds of fields.

The second point highlighted here – and the final one of the council’s plan – mentions academies. But what exactly would Suffolk ’s failing primaries get for potentially being even further adrift from the security of Government? It could be argued that doing nothing is not an option at this stage and as we sail these dire educational straits that would be a fair point.

But what would change if a failing school became an academy like Education Secretary Michael Gove seems determined to achieve? The obvious difference is they cut out local government and deal directly with the Department for Education. They are therefore not tied to the financial formulae imposed on other schools.

The benefits are clear and in plenty of areas where academies arrived on the back of long-term failings things have got better. But it is not an easy road to a schools’ kids joining Mensa and securing places at Oxford University aged 10.

The risks needed to be understood and considered – the more freedom a school is given the big the opportunity to get it spectacularly wrong.

The model, although introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour, is pure Tory-think. It cuts out a layer of government and offers a foundation for success and the freedom to fail. But, so far, it appears they are working.

Academies were set up to replace failing inner-city schools and 12 years on most of those now appear to be succeeding. Instead the likes of Suffolk are now rattling along the bottom, dunce’s hat firmly on their heads.

But do trickier times await for the academy? Sponsors and independent cash has fallen sharply in the last few years and the boom cannot last forever.

And then there are free schools – a complete waste of time unless places are an issue. So although Toby Young’s flagship institute in South London might be recording successes, do not expect a fresh batch of trendy, smug new free schools popping up across Suffolk. The country has probably already reached saturation point.

A laissez-faire approach might have worked so far to improve schools and achievement but the real reason is funding. Here in Suffolk we spend less per head on our children then almost everywhere else in the country, as the EADT exclusively reports today.

And therein is the crux of the issue. Blaming teachers and politicians is easy but the quickest way to improve attainment is spend, spend and spend again.

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