End-of-year report: How are Norfolk’s schools performing two years after council launched improvement plan?
Two years ago, the reputation of education in our region was at its nadir. In an end-of-year report, education correspondent Martin George assesses whether two years of work to turn things around has made a difference.
In 2013, education in Norfolk seemed to be in crisis.
Ministers and the chief inspector of schools regularly shamed the county in speeches and reports; too many schools were receiving poor Ofsted ratings; exam results lagged behind the national average, and the council's support for school improvement was judged 'ineffective'.
Now, two years after the county council launched its A Good School for Every Norfolk Learner programme, the EDP finds unambiguous signs of improvement, but not as much as hoped, and with more still to do.
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Ofsted has driven much of the agenda, and in 2013 chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw asked: 'Why is education so dire in much of Norfolk?'
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There has been significant improvement since then, with primaries leading the way.
Back in July 2013, 64pc of primaries were at least 'good'; according to the council's latest data, the figure is now about 79pc, exceeding the target of 78pc set two years ago.
High schools have also made progress, but not as much.
Two years ago, 63pc were at least 'good', and the council set a target of 75pc by July 2015. However, the current figure of about 67pc is short of that, and of a revised goal of 69pc.
Gordon Boyd, the council's assistant director of children's services, said: 'For primaries, that takes us quite close to the national average. For secondaries, we are still probably about 6 percentage points off.'
All Norfolk's complex needs schools are now rated at least 'good', and last summer Ofsted said the council's support for school improvement was now 'effective'.
If Ofsted grades improved, exams results have shown slower progress.
In July 2013, the council set ambitious targets for end-of-primary Sats exams, and GCSEs, to be 'at least in line with national average' in 2014. They were not.
While the proportion of pupils achieving the government target in their Sats rose from 71pc to 74pc, that remained 5 percentage points below the national average.
2014 was a year of turbulence in the GCSE system, and the proportion of Norfolk pupils gaining five A*-Cs, including English and maths, fell from 54pc to 52pc, but because the national average fell faster, Norfolk actually narrowed the gap to 3 percentage points.
In schools, data is an increasingly important tool to ensure pupil progress, but last year's Sats prediction was 4 percentage points off, and GCSEs 8 percentage points adrift. Since then, the council has focused on how robust schools' data is.
This summer's results are a crucial test. The council's latest predictions are for a rise in both age groups, with GCSEs forecast to rise to 60pc - well above last year's national average.
If Norfolk schools achieved that, it would, in Mr Boyd's words, be 'a breakthrough'.
The concern remains about variation between districts. The council forecasts improvement in all areas, but some would remain way down the national table.
Norfolk to Good and Great
The Norfolk to Good and Great (N2GG) programme has been one of the council's biggest successes.
Launched in September 2013, it has given tailored help to more than 100 schools the council believes could be judged 'requires improvement'.
The shift in the proportion of schools judged 'require improvement' to 'good' has exceeded that seen nationally, or in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and of N2GG schools inspected, 88pc have been rated 'good' or better.
But a goal set in September 2013, for 100pc of schools judged, or at risk of being judged, 'requires improvement', to be rated 'good' after an inspection, was missed.
Mr Boyd said: 'Why did we say 100pc? People were unsure whether there was enough ambition in Norfolk. To say anything else would signify some 'requires improvement' schools could just stay as 'requires improvement'.'
Schools causing concern
If N2GG focussed on schools needing help to become 'good', another strand of the council's programme focussed on those it considered a 'school of concern' - those where it is so worried that it intervenes.
When the council first assessed schools in September 2013, 79 were in the bottom category; now, 77 fit the criteria. After two years, does this represent any real progress?
The council argues this figure does not demonstrate a lack of success, but a tightening of its criteria, which now encompass more schools, and shows its increased ambition.
But a September 2013 goal that, by now, all schools that were of concern in 2013-14 would be at least 'good' after an inspection, has not been met.
In September, Norfolk to Better and Best will replace N2GG, extending the offer of support to all schools.
Mr Boyd said: 'We have still got a long way to go, but we have got to maintain momentum. The impact of A Good School for Every Norfolk Learner, and almost 80pc of schools being 'good' or 'outstanding', is something for us to take some satisfaction from, as long as we see this is something we have got to re-double our efforts moving ahead.'
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