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

Pupils at Northgate High School. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Pupils at Northgate High School. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: 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.

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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.

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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:

Sir 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.

Stalham Academy headteacher Glenn Russell and pupils. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

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 Bradley

Brian Conway, Notre Dame High School's headteacher. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant

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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