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Educating Norfolk: EDP readers share their concerns after our education system’s uncomfortable year in the national spotlight

PUBLISHED: 07:00 24 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:56 24 February 2014

Aylsham High School. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Aylsham High School. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

EDP readers have revealed their concerns about Ofsted, the academies movement and the ability of Norfolk County Council to help improve the county’s schools.

Our online survey, which launches a week-long series focusing on education in Norfolk, asked parents, pupils and teachers to rate different aspects of education on a scale of one to five, with five the most positive.

The reliability of Ofsted reports, which have driven much of the past year’s agenda, was given the worst average rating of just 1.7, and the ability of academies to improve education - a solution the government and county council favour for schools they deem failing - was given a score of two.

And the ability of Norfolk County Council, which has a responsibility to support school improvement, to improve education was graded 2.1.

Respondents were most positive about their own school, with an average rating of 3.6, but had less confidence more generally in primary schools, rated three, and secondary schools, rated 2.7.

This week’s focus comes after year in which Ofsted and ministers put education in the county in the harsh glare of the national spotlight, and follows last month’s news that Norfolk plunged 20 places in the national GCSE league table, prompting Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman to tweet: “Needs now to be Norfolk’s #No1Priority”.

Last March, Ofsted was so worried it launched a one-week blitz of 28 school inspections; in July it branded the council’s support for school improvement “ineffective”, and in December it said 20,000 Norfolk children are being educated at primary schools which are “not yet good enough”.

And speaking to MPs this month, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: “We have some counties in England that are performing incredibly badly, Suffolk and Norfolk being two of them.”

The government is also pressing the issue, with a statutory direction telling the county council’s Children’s Services Department to improve.

There are other concerns.

The National College for Teaching and Leadership has designated more than 900 national leaders of education who use their skills and experience to support struggling schools. Norfolk only has three - none at secondary level. A quarter of governor places are unfilled. Teacher recruitment is a persistent problem.

The council has recognised concerns, acknowledging as it launched its A Good School For Every Norfolk Learner strategy last April that “children and young people in Norfolk schools achieve less well than in other parts of England”.

However, the picture is not uniformly bleak. There are highly-successful individual schools, complex needs schools and post-16 colleges are highly rated, and Norfolk has just gone above the national average for 16-year-olds in education and training.

And while the 2013 primary school league tables showed the county in 136th place for reading, writing and maths, it narrowed the gap with the national average by two percentage points.

Colin Collis, county secretary for teaching union NASUWT, said: “I think things are better than people are being told they are. It’s not helpful to keep talking down Norfolk education. There are hundreds of teachers in Norfolk doing a good job every day and they don’t deserve the constant sniping.”

But there is wide agreement within the Norfolk education system that overall standards must improve.

For Thorpe St Andrew School headteacher Ian Clayton, “no-one can be satisfied from a county point of view”; for George Denby, chairman of the Norfolk Secondary Education Leaders (NSEL) group, “we are not improving fast enough”; for Nicole McCartney, executive principal of Ormiston Venture Academy, “we all know Norfolk has a lot of work to do, but knowing that is a huge step forward”.

Although moves to improve Norfolk education were already under way, it is clear that, in the words of Mr Denby, pressure from ministers and Ofsted has “galvanised everyone into collective action”.

Last summer the county council allocated £1.5 million to support school improvement; more trusts of academy schools are being formed in Norfolk; 52 of 54 Norfolk secondary school headteachers joined the restructured NSEL, and a new Norfolk Primary Headteachers’ Association has been formed.

Ofsted inspection reports for the autumn term showed a 4pc improvement in both primary and secondary schools in Norfolk.

But given the three-year time lag between students thinking about their GCSE options and taking their final exams, leaders warned results will not be instant.

Mr Denby said: “It’s a process that takes time, but we must not use that as an excuse. We have got to learn to work smarter and bring in changes that are going to impact on the lives of these children.

“We have got to be doing it now for all year groups, but people have got to realise it will have a greater impact the longer it is going on.”

What do you think about education in Norfolk? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

What does the state of education mean for our economy? See tomorrow’s EDP.

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