How being labelled as ‘dire’ help turn Norfolk schools around - and what needs to happen next

PUBLISHED: 10:01 12 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:27 16 March 2017

Pupils at Northgate High School. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Pupils at Northgate High School. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2016

When the reputation of education in Norfolk hit rock bottom four years ago, it also served as a turning point. As part of our Fighting For Their Futures campaign, Lauren Cope examines how far we have come.

It has been more than two years since the county’s headteachers faced some hard home truths.

In 2014, former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw delivered a sobering speech on local education, in which he branded much of it “dire” and said some of the unluckiest children in the country lived and studied in the east.

It came during a nadir for Norfolk education, with exam results lagging behind national averages, regular criticism from ministers and a mass Ofsted probe into 28 schools in 2013.

Morale was low - and there are few heads that, today, have shrugged off memories of what became a disheartening time to be in education.

But the tough talk left schools with nowhere to go but up - and since then, despite squeezed funding, changing exam assessments and a fragmented national picture, standards have risen.

The number of good or outstanding schools is now in line with the national level and GCSE results jumped above the England average for the first time in a decade last summer - up to 59th place out of 151, a notable leap up from the 136th place achieved in 2013.

But it is not yet time to uncork the champagne - primary schools were still in the bottom quarter of the country for reading, writing and maths last year and, as we will cover this week:

• Permanent exclusions have soared across the county, leaving dozens of challenged pupils without education

• Millions of pounds have been spent on complex needs support, as a squeeze on special school places tightens

• Young people in deprived pockets of the region are still being held back by their postcode

It is a similar picture in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with improvements made at secondary level, but work to be done at primary.

Reflecting on Sir Michael’s warning, Brian Conway, pictured right, headteacher at Norwich’s Notre Dame High School, said it was a “tough message” to take - but one which sparked a fighting spirit.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, speaking at the Norfolk headteacher conference in 2014. Photo: Bill SmithSir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, speaking at the Norfolk headteacher conference in 2014. Photo: Bill Smith

“As awful as what he said was - and he really made headteachers bristle - it was the right to do,” he said. “The challenge was fair and all headteachers certainly took that on board.

“There has been rapid improvement through a combination of factors - a concerted effort from headteachers, the local authority and regional schools commissioner (RSC), more and more teaching schools and better use of target setting, to name a few.”

But Mr Conway said schools needed space to continue improvement - and not be hampered by the “distractions” of changing government policy.

“It seems a complete distraction to announce money for grammar schools when schools are being hit by a funding crisis - we need to look at improvements that benefit everybody,” he said.

While the ball is yet to start rolling, there is hope that education secretary Justine Greening’s opportunity areas - which include Norwich and Fenland - can offer much-needed cash and support to pull up some of the county’s most deprived areas.

Coastal communities in Great Yarmouth and north Norfolk have been identified as having high levels of deprivation, along with parts of Norwich and west Norfolk.

Stalham Academy headteacher Glenn Russell and pupils. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYStalham Academy headteacher Glenn Russell and pupils. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

One scheme which has already been hailed a success is Norfolk Better to Best, formerly a Norfolk County Council project and now a community interest company.

Since it was launched in 2013, the percentage of good or outstanding schools has jumped from 63pc to 89pc - putting it in line with the national average.

Clare Jones, headteacher at Norwich’s Bignold Primary School, said its role had been “pivotal”.

She said: “Rather than it being a top down system, it was about schools coming together to support each other and looking beyond the boundaries of East Anglia.

“But our work is not by any means done though. It never is. There are still issues to address and we turn up every day and know more needs to be done.”

Brian Conway, Notre Dame High School's headteacher. Picture: Denise BradleyBrian Conway, Notre Dame High School's headteacher. Picture: Denise Bradley

Tale of turnaround

Plenty of struggling schools around the county have reversed their fortunes in the last few years.

One which has enjoyed its own turnaround tale is Stalham Academy, formerly Stalham Junior School.

In March 2013, the school - now part of the Right for Success academy trust - fell from a good Ofsted rating, and was put into special measures.

But in January, inspectors returned the school to its

earlier good rating after a concerted effort by its leadership team.

The work has been reflected in its results - progress in reading and writing at the end of year six ranked in the 10pc of all primaries nationally, while maths progress was also above average.

Headteacher Glenn Russell also drew praise, with inspectors saying he has “worked diligently” to raise standards.

Today, the school has specialist leaders in education to support other schools around the county.

Does Ofsted success equate to exams joy?

Schools are generally measured on two scales - Ofsted and league tables.

And though Ofsted is intended to drag up standards, the two often don’t go hand in hand.

Links can be drawn at extremes - Norfolk’s top-performing secondary schools, Wymondham College and Hethersett Academy, are rated outstanding, while the lowest performing schools hold similarly poor judgments.

But many don’t correlate - Archbishop Sancroft High School in Harleston achieved a Progress 8 score of -0.34 in its 2016 GCSEs (the Norfolk average was 0.01), but boasts a good Ofsted rating.

Improvement rate is also unlinked - Ofsted scores have risen across the county, but exam results remain inconsistent geographically.

Dr Adam Cooke, lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia and former deputy headteacher, said it centred on “attainment and achievement”.

“Ofsted provides a more rounded picture of a school and takes into account a number of factors including pupil achievement - progress from one point to another, whatever the starting point,” he said. “Exam results show attainment, a snapshot of how a school performed.”

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  • One of my personal highlights was when Wiltshaw visited Thorpe St Andrew (outstanding) and asked how long they had been an academy for!

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    Sunday, March 12, 2017

  • Schools and Trusts in Norfolk have just learnt how to play the system. Improving results and behaviour by either not entering kids into exams who won't pass or 'manage moving' them out of the school all together - there is a clear link between the rise in exclusions and the apparent rise in results. There's only so far that will take you and eventually results will go back down again (like the short lived rise at Thetford after all the money and tricks were pumped into it). Once a school scrapes a good or outstanding the frequency of Ofsted visits drops to virtually nothing giving very little chance for a school to be graded down again - this is the reason the number of good or outstanding schools is steadily increasing. It's all a gloss with teacher's and pupils struggling on under bullying management and funding being redirected to PR smoke and mirrors, and short term firefighting for exam results.

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    Saturday, March 11, 2017

  • Did it really? Or is it all just a carefully constructed illusion. Take a look at your kids work , see how it compares with yours at that age.Ask what the school is doing apart from academic work, does your kid have any general knowledge, a broad understanding of cultural matters, can it and does it read, go on school trips, school plays, school orchestras or music lessons. Look at what they are learning for GCSE-how much of it is trivialised or influenced by matters PC. How many hours a week are they "taught" by the unqualified. Ofsted can say what they like before and after if it suits them. A member of my family has been given books from a learning to read scheme with publication dates as early as the late 1970s and early 80s, schemes that have no relevance to the current demands for teaching reading. You would expect Ofsted to reprimand a school for not allocating its funding so that children had access to current reading material but no-maybe they didnt look. But then you wouldnt expect to see whistle blowers revealing how academies fiddled course work and exams to give results way above the capabilities of their pupils in order to satisfy Ofsted. But they are and it rings a bell when one considers the meteoric rise in passes at one Norfolk school ( at least) after conversion to an academy. Of course staff are working hard and doing their best to improve but it is only worthwhile if it is not window dressing. And more money for Norfolk schools would have helped us all-even decades ago.

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    Saturday, March 11, 2017

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