End of term report on the plan to transform 120 under-performing Norfolk schools

Denise Walker, head of Norfolk to Good and Great.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Denise Walker, head of Norfolk to Good and Great.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

In September, headteacher Denise Walker stepped into a new role of trying to turn under-performing Norfolk schools into beacons to the rest of the county. Education correspondent Martin George talked to her about her first term in the post.

It might be the most important, and most difficult, job in Norfolk education: not just turning around 120 under-performing schools, but making them into beacons to help other schools do the same.

The council's strategy for schools with Ofsted's bottom rating, 'inadequate', is clear – they must follow government expectations and become academies under a strong sponsor.

But it is the next category, schools that 'require improvement', where the council had been accused of complacency, and is now investing £1m in its two-year Norfolk to Good and Great (N2GG) strategy.

And it is into the newly-created role of head of N2GG that Denise Walker, the former principal of Hockwold and Methwold Community School, stepped in September.

Although the programme is subsidised by the council, schools pay £2,000 to £6,000 to access all the support available through N2GG for two years. Of the 120 schools the programme targets, 94 have so far engaged at some level.

Mrs Walker said the biggest change in Norfolk's approach to education is its decision to look outward, and alongside N2GG each school is given an adviser from Cambridge Education to give an external perspective on its strengths and weaknesses.

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N2GG has studied the success of the London Challenge, which transformed education in the capital, and uses the London Leadership Strategy to deliver three key programmes for schools: heads of schools targeting a 'good' rating receive training in the capital, and a national leader of education as a mentor; 'good' secondary schools receive help to become 'outstanding' and become the system leaders Ofsted says Norfolk lacks; and secondary school heads of English and maths receive special support.

A key plank of N2GG is that schools joining the programme in its first year then use what they have learned to lead the strategy in its second year, helping other Norfolk schools to improve.

It is clear that Ofsted looms large in the thinking behind the strategy, and its implementation. The 32 schools taking part last term were chosen because they were the easiest to convert to an Ofsted 'good', or the most likely to be inspected soonest.

Mrs Walker said the council now has regular meetings with Ofsted for the first time, and the inspectorate even asks when schools are ready to be re-inspected.

However, she insists that, while N2GG has to be aligned to what Ofsted expects, its aim is to do the best for Norfolk children rather than just tick the inspectors' boxes necessary to secure better grades.

Other education leaders in the county have raised two main concerns: is it ambitious enough – why 'good' and 'great' and not 'outstanding' – and does it really have the capacity to transform 120 schools.

Mrs Walker, who is the only person employed on the programme, said: 'If you think of it like that, it does seem like an enormous task, but if you work on 30 schools at a time it's manageable.'

She also emphasises she can employ people for fixed pieces of work, such as inspectors to carry out dress rehearsals ahead of Ofsted inspections.

After her first term in the post she is in a bullish mood.

'I'm more confident about this strategy than any other strategy we have had in Norfolk before, because it's not about doing to schools, it's about working with them,' she said.

'It's not about them being dependent on rigid programmes that do not suit every school.

'It's about schools understanding their responsibilities and moving out of their comfort zone. We have not been really proactive in doing that before.'