Cllr Moorhead Blog

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December 2015

An invitation to the schools minister

A lot has been written in recent years about education in Knowsley, particularly our secondary school system.

I would be the first to say that, when it comes to GCSE results, we know that our students deserve to do better and indeed are capable of doing better.

Education is a priority for me as Leader of Knowsley Council.  Part of the challenge for the council is that we don’t have direct control over what individual schools do. The days when schools were administered by the local council are long gone, and successive governments have pushed them to be independent. Current Government policy is all about encouraging academies and free schools, and I don’t see that being reversed any time soon.

So we have to work with limited powers – and we do still have an oversight role in terms of school performance and improvement. We are working with schools on a day to day basis to help them raise standards and we have invested heavily in recent years in improving the buildings for our children to be educated in.

We recently came in for some criticism when both Nicky Morgan (the Government’s Secretary of State for Education) and Nick Gibb (the Schools Minister) highlighted Knowsley’s challenges whilst making their announcements about a new National Teaching Service.  I was disappointed that they mentioned our problems but didn’t actually offer any help.

As both the Leader of the Council and as somebody whose own children and grandchildren were educated right here in Knowsley, I know that the truth is much more complex than would be convenient for a Minister hoping to make an easy political point.  I know that GCSE results in our borough aren’t where we want them to be at the moment, but I also know – and I’m sure you know, if you have first-hand experience of Knowsley schools – that there is also much to be proud of in our borough. Statistics alone do not tell the full story.

For example, Halewood CofE Primary School has just been announced by the Liverpool Echo as one of the best schools anywhere in the whole City Region. Blanket statements about all Knowsley’s schools (or all Knowsley’s young people) being “good” or “bad” just don’t make any sense.

So that’s why I wrote to Mr Gibb to correct some of the rather outdated statements he made about education in Knowsley.  Rather than just complaining about his unhelpful comments, I also invited him to come and see for himself the good work that is going on here.  You can read my letter in full on the Times Educational Supplement Website, or below.  He might have to look up how to get here of course, because I’m sure he has never been before.

I would love to hear what you think about the perception of Knowsley schools – and the fantastic things that are going on in your local school that you think Mr Gibb ought to know about, if and when he takes me up on my offer!

 

My letter in full

Dear Nick,

My name is Andy Moorhead and I am the Leader of Knowsley Council.  I don’t know you personally and I don’t believe that you are familiar with my part of the world here in Knowsley.  In fact, I am not sure if you have ever been here and that’s why I wanted to get in touch with you.

Fifteen minutes from Liverpool and 35 minutes from Manchester, Knowsley is a place full of opportunity.  We are a fundamental part of the Northern Powerhouse – home to major businesses like Jaguar Land Rover and QVC, perfectly located on the region’s motorway network, and with a strong community spirit and drive for success.

Like a lot of other places in the UK, we do however face challenges and raising educational attainment is one of the key issues we are trying to address.

In the latter context, I read with interest and some frustration the opinion piece you recently authored on education in our borough.  In your piece, you talked at some length about the education which you believe is being delivered in Knowsley – offering your own views and criticisms of a local system which you believe is failing Knowsley’s young people.  I am not a teacher, but the picture you portrayed (including phrases cut and pasted from media reports from 6 years ago!) certainly wouldn’t get tops marks from me.  In fact, it seems unfathomable that as Minister for Schools you didn’t bother to take the time to look at the true current situation here before putting pen to paper with outdated “facts” and comment.

Yes, in 2009 we did create brand new school buildings with a view to trying to inspire our pupils and begin the process of transforming education here.  I make no apology for this – the new schools were and are fantastic buildings and incredible assets for young people and their communities.  But, contrary to the inferences in your piece, we never claimed that new buildings alone would raise attainment and we have been working hard since to improve the quality of teaching and learning which goes on inside them.

In fact, were you to visit one of our secondary schools, I’m sure you would be pleasantly surprised at the traditional teaching styles which embrace and make use of the very modern settings.  As has been the favoured policy of your Government, four of our six secondary schools will be Academies by the end of this year and we’re pleased that we have secured partnerships with some of the leading Academy Trusts in the country, such as the Dean Trust and the Rowan Trust, both of which have good track records in school transformation.  These partnerships are now beginning to bear fruit and we are seeing real and measurable improvement.  Lord Derby Academy in Huyton is now part of the North West Maths Hub and is pioneering Shanghai maths in the borough.

Of course, we accept that GCSE results in Knowsley schools are currently far short of where we want them to be.  The reasons for this are, of course, complex.  We would very much welcome the chance to discuss those issues with you.  Your colleague Nicky Morgan stated on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that for Knowsley children “there isn’t a choice about anywhere else to go to”.  That comment demonstrated a rather alarming lack of understanding of our challenges.  In fact, due to our geography, local families do indeed have a choice and one of the issues we face is that 43.5% of secondary school age children living in our borough choose to attend schools outside of the Knowsley boundary. This is a frustration to us, particularly given that our Early Years and Primary Education is as good or better than most other areas in the country and an example of where Knowsley is doing well.

Even so, there are promising indications that GCSE performance in Knowsley is going in the right direction.  Take a look at the latest results for this year and you will see that Knowsley educated pupils recorded the biggest percentage increase in results in the whole of the North West and the 18th highest improvement in the country.  And that, as you must very well know, bucks the national trend which actually showed a decrease in GCSE performance this year.

You indicated in your recent public speeches and interviews that Knowsley was exactly the kind of area which would benefit from the new National Teaching Service.  In that context, it is very difficult to understand why your Department has not contacted anybody from Knowsley Council or any of the borough’s Members of Parliament to discuss the proposals, or to offer any of the outstanding teachers who you claim to have available.  Perhaps you have contacted the borough’s Academies directly with this offer?  If not, I am led to suspect that, rather than being motivated by the desire to support our schools to make genuine improvements, you simply saw the children of Knowsley as an opportunity to score political points.

One thing of which you should be in absolutely no doubt is that everyone involved in education in Knowsley is fully committed to delivering improvements and giving our young people the chance to fulfil their potential.  The facts demonstrate that we have already begun this process.  Over the past few years, National Leaders in Education have been brought into our schools in order to improve the quality of teaching and learning.  We have done much to raise aspirations, behaviour and attendance.  We had hoped to be given greater flexibility to help us continue these improvements as part of the Liverpool City Region Devolution Deal, but this was something which your Government flatly refused.

As somebody who not only represents the community in my capacity as Council Leader, but also as somebody whose children and grandchildren have attended Knowsley schools, I found your attack on Knowsley as a borough rather distasteful and opportunistic.  As a local authority we have some influence over our local schools but this is ever decreasing in line with your Government’s policy which promotes academy conversion and schools operating as independent entities. It seems rather outdated, therefore, to continue to rank educational performance by local authority area in this way.

In summary, I think your recent comments about Knowsley were poorly informed, so I would like to invite you to come and see us in Knowsley and get a clearer picture of what is actually going on here.  We will be sharing this letter and extending this invitation to the Times Educational Supplement who may be interested in joining you.  We hope that, by gaining an understanding of Knowsley as an area and of the work of the local education system, you will be better informed before making any future public statements about us.

It would also be extremely helpful – and much more constructive – if your Department could confirm whether or not Knowsley is to be part of the National Teaching Service, and, if so, what this will mean for Knowsley and when we can expect to receive our first outstanding teachers from that source.  We are, of course, always keen to recruit the very best talent and if you can offer assistance with that we would very much welcome a conversation with you.

I hope you will take me up on my offer and come to visit Knowsley.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Andy Moorhead

Leader of Knowsley Council