2013 a whirlwind year for MP Elizabeth Truss and education in Norfolk
- Credit: Matthew Usher
2013 was the year education in Norfolk was put firmly in the national spotlight, with Ofsted targeting the county in inspections, reports and speeches, and the council ending the year awaiting ministerial orders telling it how to improve.
As both a Norfolk MP and an education minister, Elizabeth Truss has a unique, if partisan, viewpoint from which to see how the national and local agendas intersect.
Given the attention on Norfolk this year, will 2013 be seen as the year Norfolk turned the corner?
While Ms Truss said people were already aware of weaknesses, this was the year Ofsted 'brought a real focus and urgency to sorting them out'.
'The important thing that happened this year is that everyone in Norfolk has recognised there's a problem, and it needs to be worked on, and you are starting to see the signs of improvement,' she added.
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Ms Truss is a vocal supporter of academies and free schools, and while 'early leaders' had been active in Norfolk before 2013, there was now a 'critical mass'.
Locally, she picked out the growth of specialist Norfolk chains of academies responsible for multiple schools as a key development.
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'They are getting the benefits of scale. They are sharing information, not just within schools but between schools. I think that's very important in a rural county, being able to offer teachers exciting career opportunities,' she said. A development she said will further attract teachers will be the arrival next year of Teach First, a training programme which aims to attract the brightest graduates and send them to struggling communities.
The council has pointed to recent successes of its £1m, two-year Norfolk to Good and Great programme, but does the minister have confidence in its plan?
She is careful not to commit herself: 'I think the proof is in the pudding. What I do want to see is where schools are not improving, the council is prepared to put improvement notices on the school. If schools are not delivering for children, they should not be left to flounder.'
Ms Truss raises the low number of primary schools that are academies – 9pc of the national total, compared to 51pc of secondary schools, and much lower in Norfolk – and signalled a government drive to create more.
Some have accused the Department for Education of being obsessed with academies – it rarely tweets good news about any school which is not one – but Ms Truss said there are many kinds of good schools, but converting to academy status improves those that are under-performing.
It is an issue with a sharp focus in Norwich, where the parents at Cavell Primary are fighting for it to join a co-operative trust rather than academy chain, a dispute Ms Truss would not be drawn on.
She also supported more all-through schools, where primaries and secondaries merge, reducing problems when pupils make the transition from one phase of education to the next.
Nationally, there has been a sense in 2013 of a government trying to firmly embed its reforms ahead of the 2015 general election.
Changes to the national curriculum, A-levels, GCSEs, league tables and the introduction of free school meals for infants have all been agreed this year, while the free school and academy programmes continued unabated.
As Ms Truss said: 'A lot of major pieces of the jigsaw have been put in place and there's now a greater emphasis on implementation.'
In her ministerial role, much of 2014 will be taken up with preparations for the new national curriculum, which comes into effect in September. For local schools, it will involve six months of preparation for when computer programming starts being taught from five, languages become compulsory from seven and calculators are banned from exams for 11 year olds.
2013 was also the year when Ms Truss came to national prominence, largely because of disputes with Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who blocked her signature proposal for higher child care ratios.
One suspects the two did not exchange Christmas cards, but when asked about their relationship Ms Truss dutifully listed coalition policies their two parties have delivered, mildly adding that 'there are a number of other issues on which we don't agree'.
2013 was also a year when the 'Norfolk nine' – the county's seven Conservative and two Lib Dem MPs – flexed their collective muscles in the education sphere, easing the departure of Lisa Christensen as head of the council's Children's Service Department, and demanding a rethink of plans to cut college students' transport subsidies.
Ms Truss says that in 2014 they will focus on skills in Norfolk, and push the government not to take its eyes off the county. The council's education cabinet member Mick Castle has called for the government to give Norfolk the same funding inner cities received for the last decade, but Ms Truss argues for attention rather than money.
She said: 'We are making the case that Norfolk has lost out and needs to get more of that focus, whether it's people like [academies minister] Lord Nash visiting the county and being directly involved in seeking solutions, or the county council getting the support it needs, or Teach First coming. I think all Norfolk MPs will be drumming the point to make sure the county gets the attention it deserves.'
The Conservatives are well into their preparations for the 2015 manifesto, but when told that many Norfolk teachers talk of the need for a period of stability in the education system, Ms Truss instead talks about the need for continuing change.
While there were no concrete clues about what a Tory majority government might do, Ms Truss talked about raising expectations, improving accountability systems, and lessons from Shanghai, which topped the international Pisa league tables which this month saw the UK stagnating. Elizabeth Truss said 2013 had been 'quite a whirlwind' for her, but after a festive rest there is little doubt she will be back fighting for her vision of education in 2014.