Norfolk County Council’s Fred Corbett tells of struggle with government
Norfolk has faced – and still faces – a constant battle to overcome the prejudices of national education leaders who see the area as a 'backwater'.
That is the view of the assistant director of children's services Fred Corbett as he prepares to retire next month after more than a decade at the top of the education system in this county.
Having seen seven secretaries of state take up the role since he came to Norfolk in 1998, the former teacher and chief inspector said a lack of continuity at the top made it impossible to ensure the department for education had an accurate view of this part of the country.
'The problem I find is there is so much change that happens in the DfE. We don't get a huge continuity of people,' he said. 'We felt, every time there was a change, we had to start again to get them to understand Norfolk – get them to feel that their own prejudiced view of Norfolk as a backwater was a lot of nonsense.'
When Mr Corbett first came to Norfolk 14 years ago as chief inspector, he was struck by the view other people had of the county.
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After growing up on the outskirts of London and attending college and university in the city, he had originally thought concerns about government being too London focused were exaggerated, but soon began to change his mind.
'I really feel it now,' he said. 'When I got the job here, a very, very senior person in the DfE said 'what on earth are you going there for?' There was this sense that people didn't go there if they were ambitious on a national scale. That got under my skin.
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'It's a very mixed economy here. There are huge areas of deprivation that deserve to be fought for as well. From the go, I was banging the drum for Norfolk.'
But, more than a decade on, the assistant director of children's services, whose last day in the office will be March 16, believes the idea of Norfolk as a 'backwater' still exists.
Senior figures in the DfE still fail to acknowledge the differences between urban and rural areas and make little effort to get to know how education works here.
Issues surrounding a high number of small schools, high transport costs and widely dispersed social deprivation, are little understood.
He said: 'The best of them would agree to come and meet us here in Norfolk, rather than in London. But we have to fight for that. I can think of some I felt really got to know us, got a sense of what was happening here.
'I can think of someone who comes here at the moment and still can't see beyond 'It's not London'. It's a real issue.'
The result is that Norfolk can sometimes miss out on funding packages aimed at other parts of the country because of a lack of understanding of the problems here.
The Building Schools for the Future funds prioritised urban areas between London and Manchester meaning many Norfolk schools were still waiting for improvements by the time the programme was cut, Mr Corbett said.
And a bid by the county council to create a Rural Challenge, in line with the government's London Challenge which focused on raising attainment in the capital, was 'never really understood'.
Mr Corbett added: 'I don't think it was deliberately anti-Norfolk but it is felt to be a relatively comfortable environment and some of the challenges aren't appreciated.'
Even when the secretaries of state have had strong Norfolk links – including Baroness Gillian Shephard, Charles Clarke, and Ed Balls, who went to school here – there had been little change.
Mr Corbett said even if the ministers had a strong focus on this county, they could not force the rest of the department to do the same, and could not be seen to favour Norfolk.
But he said Norfolk County Council had long been trying to convince the government to focus on areas like Norfolk in the same way it focused on big urban areas.
And it is doing its best to overcome those ever-present prejudices.
The authority's attempts to speak up for Norfolk and dispel myths that it is 'the death bed of ambition' aim to help attract top professionals, including teachers, to come here.
'We still need to promote ourselves as being a rich and vibrant place to come and work,' Mr Corbett said.