Norfolk faces education challenge after GCSE league table slump
- Credit: PA
Concerns about the state of education in Norfolk have been building for some time, but yesterday's league tables marked the first time in nine years that the proportion of pupils meeting the government's key target actually fell.
The direction is also downwards when compared to other areas, with the county falling from 118th to 138th out of 151 education authorities, and overtaken by an improving Suffolk. Neighbouring Cambridgeshire rose above the national average.
Many will see the 2013 results as a line in the sand, and demand definite and clear improvement next year.
The reasons advanced for the poor showing in 2013 are many and varied.
Hewett School associate headteacher Rob Anthony said the county has three factors associated with poor performance – white, working class pupils, rural communities and urban deprivation.
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He also said Norfolk had a high number of pupils on the C/D borderline, a critical boundary on the government's current 'gold standard' of students gaining grade C or above in five or more GCSEs, including English and maths.
Gordon Boyd, the county council's assistant director of children's services, cited two factors: Norfolk schools making less use of qualifications that are equivalent to GCSEs but still count in league tables, and some schools not adapting to tightened GCSEs in science, maths and English.
He pointed out that students in the most recent league tables had completed most of their studies before the council's improvement strategy A Good School for Every Norfolk Learner began last April, and that since then Ofsted had noted improvements in Norfolk secondary schools.
He said: 'Let's not allow confidence to wane that we have got a very good strategy that is proving to be very well-received by governors, headteachers, county councillors and is undoubtedly having the effect of bringing people together in school-to-school support.'
The work includes using expertise from the London Leadership Strategy, which helped transform education in the capital, and forming links with successful schools in Essex, Devon and Lambeth.
Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust federation of seven Norfolk academies, described the overall county results as 'very disappointing', and called for speedy action, with more support from outside agencies.
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She said she had met Denise Walker, who heads the council's Norfolk to Good and Great programme for schools that need improvement, and added: 'I think the work she is doing is good, but she is only one woman with an awful lot of schools. It's headteachers that need to take responsibility and work together across the system. We need to look outside for support from Future Leaders, Teach First and the Inspiration Trust.'
She added: 'It's not an undoable job. We absolutely can do it, but it's leadership, teaching and learning that need a forensic focus.'
Despite this week's league table, Rob Anthony was optimistic that current work in Norfolk would lead to better results next year.
He said: 'There are lots of things in place. The secondary heads group is doing an incredible amount of work linking schools together. We are grouped in families of schools and then split into triads. We are looking at sharing best practice and learning from each other. That was one of the things that really worked in the London Challenge.'
Ian Clayton, headteacher of Thorpe St Andrew School and a recognised leader of education, said there was 'an awful lot of activity going on'.
He said this includes the first engagement with the National College of Teaching programme for many years, with 26 middle leaders receiving support with leadership and other skills. However, he warned there would be a lag time before the effect came through in league tables.
He said: 'You can't turn it around in a year. You are talking about a little bit of a quick fix with year 11 results, but it goes right back to year nine options. The Norfolk strategy is something that you won't see results of for a year or two.'
He also warned against relying on headline league table figures alone.
So will we see better news for Norfolk schools this time next year? For Mr Boyd, of the council, 'we jolly well should do'. He added: 'It would be astonishing if we were suddenly at the national average, but we should see year-on-year improvement.'
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