Schools in Knowsley were under the spotlight again last week after OFSTED made some negative (and contradictory) comments about the rate at which improvements in educational performance are being made in the borough.
As part of our ongoing efforts to support schools to raise standards, senior officers from the council met with OFSTED only six weeks ago. At that meeting, our officers outlined the numerous steps we are taking to improve education in Knowsley. OFSTED’s Regional Director said at that meeting that we were doing all the right things and, when he and his team were asked specifically if there was anything they thought we had overlooked or could add to our existing activity, they said no – just carry on with what you’re doing.
So it was a bit of a surprise last Tuesday when the same Regional Director published an open letter to councillors, officers, schools and (of course) the media to raise his concerns about the lack of progress being made.
His letter painted a rather bleak picture of education in Knowsley. I’m really pleased to say that plenty of local residents came out throughout the day to defend their local schools and teachers and to highlight the good education that they or their children have had at Knowsley schools. You may also have seen or heard our Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Cllr Gary See, being interviewed by the media throughout the day as well as Vicky Gowan, Acting Head of Lord Derby Academy, who put on record that she feels the council is doing everything it can to support schools to make improvements. It was also great to hear some pupils who were interviewed on TV and radio – they said they felt OFSTED’s comments were rather negative and didn’t reflect their experience of school. One even said that the remarks were “disrespectful” to teachers, who work really hard.
I wrote an open letter back to the Regional Director – who, by the way, has never set foot in a Knowsley school – and you can read my letter in full here.
I think it very important to point out that more than 90% of our primary schools are rated “Good” or “Outstanding” by OFSTED, as are all of our Children’s Centres, and that only recently our Family and Community Education service was also rated “Good”. There is much that we are getting right in this borough as well as things we know must improve, specifically in relation to secondary education outcomes.
On the same day, Sir Michael Wilshaw, OFSTED’s Chief Inspector of Schools in England – who has also never visited a Knowsley school – gave several interviews in which he urged local political leaders to stand up for education and champion changes.
I can assure you and him – that is exactly what I and my colleagues are continually doing – school improvement is something that we all push extremely hard for and we will continue to do so.
But, as Sir Michael should know only too well, the education system in this country is very centralised – controlled from Westminster and not by locally accountable councils. We are really proud that we have secured four excellent Academy Trusts to run four of our secondary schools, and we have a fantastic relationship with them, but the fact is that, when a school becomes an academy, it is completely independent from the council, reducing our direct influence over what goes on in the classroom even further.
We do still have responsibility to work with our local schools to push for improvements but we no longer have any powers to make really big changes to respond to local need and make schools more responsive to the needs of our area.
And in fact, when we asked to be given greater responsibility for education as part of the Liverpool City Region devolution deal (we made 11 specific proposals), the Department for Education refused to entertain the idea.
Local political leaders across the City Region – including us in Knowsley – are more than ready to stand up and be accountable for our education system. We just need to be given the powers to do so. Unfortunately that, at the moment, is firmly off the Government’s agenda. Maybe OFSTED should speak to them…