Education Matters: I back Suffolk County Council over its ‘RAG’ ratings

Geoff Barton, heateacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury

Geoff Barton, heateacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury - Credit: Archant

This month the East Anglian Daily Times proudly reported that through its use of the Freedom of Information Act it had scored a victory for parents, for school accountability, and for freedom of the press.

It talked of ‘battles’, of overcoming a culture of ‘secrecy’, and of campaigning to secure ‘excellent education for every Suffolk pupil’.

It was good headline-grabbing stuff which, if I were a journalist, I would think merited the combination of breathy prose and lingering self-righteousness. I’d be congratulating myself that tenacious lobbying had allowed me to infiltrate the darkly secretive world of Suffolk’s education fraternity.

Except that – as someone at the heart of that fraternity - I’m not convinced that the scoop will have done much to make Suffolk’s schools better. Here’s why.

First, I’m not writing this defensively, as a standards-denier. Nor am I a flagwaver for all that the county council does. The truth is that Suffolk’s education system simply hasn’t been good enough for too long.

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Of course we have some great schools, as many parents know, with examples of high aspiration and innovation. But the county as a whole – once held up as a flagship education authority – began to lose its way.

This should be a matter of urgent disappointment to all of us – parents, teachers, business people and politicians. There’s something humiliating about report after report, then a succession of league tables, all apparently pointing in the same direction. Downwards.

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But – again without being defensive – we do need to be careful about recycling an old narrative or clutching after simplistic solutions. Things here are changing. And we need to compare like with like. The truth is that Suffolk schools are woefully underfunded compared to places that appear so effortlessly to outperform us – such as Hackney and other inner London schools.

I spoke to a London headteacher last week who boasted of all the extra staff he could deploy when his students fell behind, of the support systems and infrastructure at his disposal.

Suddenly it was clearer to me why London has so effectively managed to tackle underachievement at its root, with extra teaching targeted at underperforming students early enough to make a difference, and with schools and services close enough to make the interventions simper, quicker, more effective.

Added to which he can recruit teachers. He gets more than a handful of applicants for any vacancy and, because he’s in London, he often gets graduates of very high quality, keen to spend a few years working in schools in one of the world’s most desirable cities.

Here in Suffolk, there’s a new mood of determination to improve faster. Old excuses are no longer acceptable. For example, there’s a recognition that Ofsted inspections only tell you about a school’s past – what it has historically achieved.

So the authority’s RAG rating system– categorising each of Suffolk’s schools green, amber or red – is designed to make judgements about likely future performance. It’s an imperfect but important way of looking at the trajectory of a school’s performance and leadership, and deciding whether a school needs more support nor not.

It’s what Suffolk’s leaders should have been doing years ago – making sure there was a risk assessment system in place behind the scenes to identify schools which might be about to slide downhill, so that action could be taken.

It’s what I’d hope any organisation would be doing routinely – applying robust analytical measures to its own performance in order to pre-empt unexpected decline.

Suffolk’s RAG-rating system is based on the assumption that data in itself is rarely the solution to a problem.

Statistics serve as a kind of tin opener, lifting the lid on possible underperformance and creating a context for full and frank confidential discussions between the authority’s leaders, headteachers and governors.

At the last count 78% of Suffolk’s schools were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. We should feel proud of that. But we can do better. The local authority has had the boldness to go further and – even when it upsets some school leaders and governors – to ask questions about schools which, on the surface, seem high performers but in reality may have stalled.

This isn’t some Mafia-style collusion to keep parents in the dark. It’s not secrecy. It’s leadership.

By Geoff Barton

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