Ofsted praises progress of Norfolk and Suffolk schools - three years after “dire” comment

Ofsted regional director Andrew Cook. Photo : Steve Adams

Ofsted regional director Andrew Cook. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

Ofsted has praised improvements in Norfolk schools – and said things were 'pointing in the right direction' for things to get much better.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector, speaking at the Norfolk headteacher conference in 2014.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector, speaking at the Norfolk headteacher conference in 2014. The year before, he asked why education was "so dire" in much of Norfolk. Photo: Bill Smith

It comes just three years after chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw branded education in much of the county as 'dire', and two years after he told Norfolk headteachers that local children were 'being let down'.

Andrew Cook, the school inspectorate's regional director for the East of England, highlighted a big increase in the proportion of the county's schools graded 'good' or 'outstanding', which has risen from 66pc in July 2013 to 86pc now.

It follows a summer which saw GCSE results improve again, and saw Norfolk jump more than 30 places in league table for end-of-primary school test results.

Mr Cook said: 'Over the past 12 months, the proportion of good and outstanding schools has definitely increased and if you think back to two years ago when Sir Michael Wilshaw visited Norfolk and said some quite critical things, it has shifted on quite considerably.

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'Then it was about 13 percentage points below the national figure, and now we are almost in line with national.

'I think that's really good news, but Norfolk should be much better than that, and I think Norfolk itself would say it is aspiring to do better.

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'They have come on a journey and things seem to be pointing in the right direction. I get the sense that Norfolk has upped its game.'

He said there were 'positive signs' in Suffolk, but added: 'Their secondary schools have probably not improved as much as we would want them to. That's they key area that they need to focus on.'

He said the early signs were that this year's results would see an improvement.

However, he flagged up problems attracting good teachers as a 'huge challenge' for schools in some parts of the region, and added: 'We have inspected schools that have tried really hard to overcome that, but some schools are facing a really serious challenge in recruiting good staff.'

He also warned headteachers the performance of pupils who came from disadvantaged backgrounds would be 'a really pivotal point in inspection judgements' this year, and they would be unlikely to be judged 'good' if they did not do well for them.

Mr Cook will become Ofsted's regional director for north west England in the new year, and the inspectorate is currently advertising for his replacement.

Financial pressure on schools

Mr Cook said that 'many headteachers' had spoken to him about the financial pressures their schools were currently under, and he warned that how they deal with it could affect their inspection grades.

Last month, an EDP analysis of 50 sets of academy accounts showed many were facing deficits or making staff cuts because of rising costs and falling pupil numbers.

Asked whether this had affected standards in local schools, Mr Cook said: 'I don't think we have unpicked any great evidence of that, but I think what we would see more of is how budgets impact on strategic decision making, and strategic decision making will influence the judgements we make on leadership and management.'

He said that dealing with changes in pupil numbers and funding was 'a real challenge', and that he had seen some schools 'manage that really well', while in others he had seen 'strategic decision making that is less effective'.

Key year for academy Ofsted inspections

For Ofsted, 2016-17 will provide a big test of how academies and academy trusts in our region are performing.

After converting to academy status, schools are given a grace period where they are not inspected by Ofsted. Following the burst of academisation in Norfolk a couple of years ago, many of these schools are now due inspections shortly.

Mr Cook said it would be a chance 'to see whether [academisation] has had an impact on how schools are doing'.

Increasing numbers of academies are part of wider academy trusts, and while Ofsted does not have the power to inspect these trusts themselves, it can look at groups of their schools and publish conclusions about the performance of the wider organisation.

Many local schools are in small-scale trusts that Ofsted has not yet reported on.

Mr Cook said: 'One of the things we will be looking at is how some of these smaller trusts challenge and support their schools to do well.'

New chief inspector

As chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw has rarely shied away from controversy, and, as he comes to the end of his term, there is speculation ministers want his successor to take a lower profile.

Amanda Spielman, the current chairman of the exams regulator Ofqual, will replace Sir Michael.

When asked what he thought her regime would be like, Mr Cook said: 'I'm sure Amanda will want to build on what's come before. I'm also sure she will bring her own priorities as well, and we are looking forward to that.'

MPs on the Education Select Committee opposed her appointment, and its chairman expressed exasperation about her frequent reference to data during her confirmation hearing.

Will Ofsted inspections under Ms Spielman become more reliant on data on a spreadsheet, rather than what inspector see and hear in schools?

Mr Cook said he thought not, and added: 'I think it was right for Amanda to talk about us being evidence-based, and I think that evidence is a range of evidence that we collect about any one provider that helps us to make really secure judgments.'

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