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Opinion: What a difference three years has made for Norfolk education

PUBLISHED: 06:30 28 October 2016

Eight of the highest GCSE achievers at North Walsham High School. Pictured from left are: Howard Rooke, Milly Knowlden, Lydia Gibbs, Jodie Weller, Lizzie Skinner, Callum Hoy, Victoria Earp and Sarah Rigby.Picture: ANDY NEWMAN

Eight of the highest GCSE achievers at North Walsham High School. Pictured from left are: Howard Rooke, Milly Knowlden, Lydia Gibbs, Jodie Weller, Lizzie Skinner, Callum Hoy, Victoria Earp and Sarah Rigby.Picture: ANDY NEWMAN

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Three-and-a-half years ago, when I became education correspondent, the schools system in Norfolk was at its nadir.

Education leaders were reeling from Ofsted’s mass inspection of 28 of the county’s schools; chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw asked why education was “so dire in much of Norfolk”; education minister Lord Nash descended on Norwich in his helicopter to say not enough of our schools were good enough, and should become academies.

Now, as I prepare to leave the EDP, the picture looks very different.

Perhaps the most telling thing is what is not being said. By the time he launched his 2015 annual report, Sir Michael had turned his critical eye to the north and the Midlands. He did not mention Norfolk and Suffolk once.

The reason is that, on almost every measure, education in Norfolk has been getting steadily better. The proportion of schools rated at least “good” is now hovering around the national average; the performance of the county’s high schools was this summer above the England average for the first time in a decade; Norfolk jumped 30 places in the national table for tests for 11-year-olds, although it was still in the bottom third, and its seven-year-olds were in the top 25 for writing and science.

It is not quite time to pop the champagne corks, but quiet satisfaction about a work-in-progress that is showing results is justified.

Undoubtedly, the events of 2013 were a shock to Norfolk’s education system, and prompted real efforts to learn from what works elsewhere, collaborate across schools, and step in quickly when things went wrong.

But this sceptical journalist senses other factors at play, alongside the genuine improvements.

Part of it is Norfolk becoming more “savvy”, as one education leader described it, about what the inspectors and examiners are looking for, and how schools can give them what they want. It is like a sensible student brushing up their exam technique, as well as their subject knowledge.

More worrying are the perverse incentives inevitably created under any regime where people’s careers and reputations hinge on data or inspections. In an EDP survey earlier this year, 45pc of Norfolk teachers said they had been put under pressure to inflate the results of some assessments, coursework or exams.

Over the past three years, I have met so many passionate, committed and talented education leaders and teachers, as well as intelligent, creative and provocative children and young people.

It has been a pleasure, and I know they will enjoy continued success.

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