There is now ‘real determination’ to move up national league tables - reaction to Suffolk County Council’s Ofsted report

Suffolk County Council's base at Endeavour House

Suffolk County Council's base at Endeavour House - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s education community has reacted to the county’s Ofsted report which found progress to improve schools to be “too slow” but praised other areas.

Lisa Chambers, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for education and skills.

Lisa Chambers, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for education and skills. - Credit: Archant

The education watchdog published a report into Suffolk County Council’s school improvement plan yesterday, giving a mixed verdict.

A number of moves taken to improve pupils’ learning were highlighted as positive such as introducing a risk assessment which gives schools red, amber or green statuses depending on their progress. It added that “decisive improvements” had been made in areas of weakness identified in last year’s critical report which called the plan “ineffective”.

Although this year’s report states the council is in a “stronger position” to identify struggling schools because of the risk assessment, “strained relationships” were caused by the way it was communicated to headteachers and governors.

The Conservative-controlled council must also focus on improving two main areas: the first is to “rapidly improve achievement, particularly for disadvantaged pupils”. Ofsted claims the results for disadvantaged children at secondary school are the worst in the region.

A total of 13,272 pupils in Suffolk receive free school meals – one way of classing children as ‘disadvantaged’.

The second main area of improvement is to ensure that “all pupils attend a good or outstanding school”. Three-quarters of schools in Suffolk are classed by Ofsted as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, against a national average of 80% – which means 25,000 children attend either a school with a ‘requires improvement’ or an ‘inadequate’ grade.

Yesterday the county’s education community reacted to the report.

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Madeleine Vigar, chairman of Suffolk Association of Secondary Headteachers, said she recognised the need to work in collaboration to support education in Suffolk.

“Last year I was seconded to Suffolk County Council to lead the development of the Suffolk Learning Partnership, to which we are still committed in order to facilitate high-quality school-to-school support and further improve standards for all young people in Suffolk,” she said.

“As an association we are proactive. We will continue to work in partnership with the Suffolk School Improvement Service in order to support outstanding educational outcomes across Suffolk.”

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury St Edmunds, said there was now “real determination” to get Suffolk up the league tables but warned that the rate of improvement needed to increase.

“It’s clear from Ofsted’s report that there’s still much to do if education across every school in every part of Suffolk is to become consistently good again,” he said.

“I’m pleased to see that Ofsted recognises the progress that the county council team has made. But it’s also evident that the pace and ambition of school improvement needs to increase.

“From those leading the changes, I sense a real determination to get our education service back to where it belongs. I look forward to continuing to work with them.”

Ipswich and Lowestoft are singled out in the report as areas where there are not enough good or outstanding schools. Ipswich MP, Ben Gummer, said every school needed to be good or outstanding.

“I suppose we should be grateful that the direction of travel is good but until we have exceptional schools in Suffolk and, specifically Ipswich, we will be, by definition, not moving quickly enough,” he said.

“The county council needs to turbo charge its efforts. It’s beginning to have an impact in Ipswich but I want to see more happening and more quickly.”

Graham White, secretary of the Suffolk branch of the National Union of Teachers, called on the authority to “encourage” schools and not “bully” them.

He said: “Suffolk teachers are working hard to raise standards in all schools. Suffolk headteachers are working hard to raise standards in schools. No-one is complacent. Schools do not have to be sick to get better.

“The way to raise standards is to encourage, support, assist, not bully.”

He has concerns, that with the number of academies in the country growing, the council is unable to directly improve those schools.

Academies are schools which have broken away from direct local authority control to be run by a sponsor which is overseen by the Department of Education.

Mr White added: “As the Ofsted report points out ‘school-to-school support is important’. The NUT agrees.

“We have been saying that for some time. As schools become academies that school-to-school support decreases as they become ‘islands’.

“SCC has a duty to monitor standards in free schools and academies but without the powers of intervention that it has in its own schools.”

Dan McCarthy, executive member for teaching union NASUWT in Suffolk, said: “SCC has backed on removing middle schools as their preferred option for improving educational provision. Sadly this is not enough and has resulted in the loss of good schools and teachers to be replaced with poorly funded changes.

“Teachers and schools are working harder. But a lack of money and vision are hampering success particularly in deprived areas.”

Opposition Labour councillors said the Ofsted report was “highly critical” of the council’s record. They want more money spent to improve schools.

Sonia Barker, Labour’s spokeswoman for education, said: “Whilst I am sure this administration will try to paint a rosy picture of this damning report they cannot get away from the fact that Ofsted is highly critical.

“The report says the council is too slow, school leaders cannot access support, there are too many Neets (young people not in education, employment or training), there is no link between targets and outputs, the council is not evaluating the impact of change, that the authority is not good value for money.

“The list of criticisms goes on and on. The report is an embarrassment for the county council.”

But Lisa Chambers, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for education and skills, disagreed. She said the report was an “endorsement” of the council’s direction and ambition for schools.

She said: “I believe this report comes as an endorsement of our direction of travel and the ambitions we have for the county’s schools. I have always said our programme for long term improvement will not be accomplished overnight. We take on board the areas for improvement identified in Ofsted’s letter. These are all areas we were already aware of and work was already in progress before receipt of Ofsted’s letter.

“I remain fully committed to ensuring we deliver the opportunity for every child to attend a good or outstanding school in Suffolk. Ofsted acknowledges that our vision and strategy are moving us in the right direction and there are some very positive points to take from their letter.”

Speaking yesterday, Andrew Cook, East of England regional director for Ofsted, said action was needed to improve the results of disadvantaged children.

When asked which area of the report concerns him most, he said: “I think it’s about disadvantaged pupils in Suffolk not doing well enough. Suffolk is the worst performing local authority in the region – compounding that is there is not enough good or better schools in Suffolk.

“The local authority needs to work much more with good headteachers and good and outstanding schools to promote good practice right across the authority.

“I think we have seen some aspects, features with some improvement in Suffolk. We have seen a far more forensic study of performance and they are beginning to work with some headteachers right across the authority in schools which are declining.”

The report comes at a time when the council is conducting a major restructure of its school improvement service under its ‘Making Every Intervention Count’ programme as it saves an overall £5million from its children and young people’s services department.

The next Ofsted inspection is due in two years’ time.

Why there are concerns about education in Suffolk

Despite Suffolk rising 12 places in the latest GCSE national league table, the county is still ranked 125th out of 151 local authorities.

And that improvement came when the actual percentage of students who achieved at least five A*-C grades in Suffolk, including English and maths, fell from 2013’s 54.6% to last year’s 51.7%. The national average for 2014 was 53.4%.

Ever since 2007, the county has had a lower proportion of pupils gaining the grades than the national average.

Suffolk is ranked in the top 10 worst authorities for Key Stage Two results.

Department for Education figures show that 74% of 11-year-olds at state-funded schools in Suffolk achieved at least a Level Four grade in reading, writing and mathematics when sitting national curriculum tests, known as SATs, last year.

It is a rise from 70% in 2013 and 68% in 2012, but means the county is joint-seventh worst out of 152 in England.