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

PUBLISHED: 13:00 01 January 2014

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

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.

Strategy draws on success of London Challenge

The Norfolk to Good and Great strategy draws heavily on the London Challenge, which over the last decade transformed education in the capital from a national embarrassment to the best in the country.

When Ofsted reviewed the London Challenge three years ago, it found a feeling of responsibility among school staff for all London children, not just those at their school, and the use of good schools to train groups of teachers of nearby schools that needed support.

This sense of collaboration is one key to N2GG.

However, there are differences. Norfolk cannot match the huge levels of resources the government poured into London education, and the county’s geography makes the same kind of tight-knit clusters of schools harder to replicate.

Mrs Walker said N2GG has two strands, the first being the immediate effort to improve schools, with councils in a key instigating role.

But in the longer term, Mrs Walker said the aim is to have “a self-improving strategy so that when the stabilisers are taken off the bike the schools are able to sustain their school improvement themselves by more collaborative working and school-to-school support, which in Norfolk is very challenging because of the geography and the number of small primary schools”.

As well as training and mentoring from the London Leadership Strategy, N2GG includes a two-year masters degree accredited with Anglia Ruskin University, support for improving governance, access to international links, and support to prepare for Ofsted inspections.

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.

Council claims early successes for N2GG

Mrs Walker said that, of the N2GG schools that Ofsted inspected this term, there had been “not a single disappointment”.

After Archbishop Sancroft High in Harleston was rated “good” earlier this month, headteacher Richard Cranmer said: “The support we have received from the N2GG scheme has had a significant impact and without it we could have been looking at a very different judgment from the inspectors. The key has been the school-to-school support which is so instrumental in the county’s strategy for school improvement.”

Other successes include Magdalen Gates Primary in Norwich, which improved from “satisfactory” to “good”, and Coltishall Primary, which jumped from “satisfactory” last year to “outstanding” this month. Mrs Walker said: “We are really pleased with the way our view of schools is aligned with Ofsted’s view. We have not had any surprises, either on when they were inspected, or what the outcome was.”

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.

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.”

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