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For those of you who waded through the self-indulgence and obscurity of yesterday’s post, it might come as something of a surprise than I do occasionally get out and try to make a difference in the real world. So, today sees the publication of the RSA’s ten month inquiry into school education in Suffolk. Although the lion’s share of the work was done by my splendid colleagues Joe Hallgarten and Louise Bamfield, I chaired the Inquiry and the stakeholder group which informed it.  

The background to the report is the erratic performance of Suffolk schools over the last decade. Despite recent improvements, Suffolk is still performing poorly in comparison with national averages and its statistical neighbours. Poor aggregate levels of pupil progress and attainment are combined with wide gaps in educational achievement between disadvantaged groups and other pupils. In the words of the County Council, ‘Suffolk is stuck’.

The full report is available here. I’m particularly proud of the methodology we used, eschewing the usual closed door Commission and one way consultation process and opting instead for a set of Solutions groups which have not only informed the work but engaged hundreds of people and developed solutions which are already being implemented even before the County Council has responded to the report.

At the heart of the report is our belief in the power of collaboration. Our approach is to combine devolution of responsibility and resources to schools with an expectation that they commit to strong partnerships with:

‘Pyramids’ of secondary and their feeder primary schools and early years settings where objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the attainment and progression of every child;

Other neighbouring schools and organisations working with young people and the wider community where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the well-being of every child;

Schools with a similar profile to themselves in ‘families’, where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the quality of teaching and learning and school improvement.

For this collaboration to make a difference it must be long term, substantive, focused and based on measurable aims. We have called the report 'no school an island' to signal the importance that we attach to the principle that publicly funded institutions must take both individual and shared responsibility for the interests of the children and young people of Suffolk. We believe that schools now need to open their doors more routinely and purposefully to a wider range of partners, engaging with employers to enable children and young people to have a richer understanding of, and engagement in, the world of work, and to involve the wider community, especially parents, in valuing education and raising children's achievement.

Another key recommendation (there are twenty in all) is that Suffolk should form a strong partnership with an inner London authority. Partly to learn from the latter’s success but also to address the danger of insularity in Suffolk and to provide opportunities for schools, teachers and pupils to develop new relationships, insights and ambitions. Yesterday saw the first step as pupils from Suffolk and Hackney met and studied together at Holy Trinity School, Dalston under the encouraging gaze of teachers and councillors from both Councils.

Suffolk County Council has been supportive and encouraging but officers and councillors will now take a few weeks to develop a considered response to the report. When exploring successful improvement strategies there is a tendency to overlay a post hoc neatness on the process but, on closer inspection these change processes - from Ontario to London Challenge - turn out to have been multi-faceted and emergent. Achieving a step-change in performance will require effort and adaptation. We hope many of our ideas will work well but others will no doubt need to be refined.

But whatever emerges from the County, many of the ideas in our report are already progressing. For example, there is the collaboration between two clusters of schools around the development of a 9-14 ‘mid-Bacc’ focussed among other things on ensuring  a successful and substantive primary secondary transition. There is also the work done by the employer engagement group which rests of the powerful foundation of a set of core competencies - communication, responsibility, teamwork and initiative - jointly agreed by teachers, employers and young people. Using this framework Suffolk schools can benefit from the palpable enthusiasm among local employers to engage more fully not just with schools as institutions but with the content of teaching and learning.

I have really enjoyed the Inquiry process and, although I say it myself, I think our approach is relevant not just to Suffolk but represents a robust and imaginative way to addressing the issue facing all localities: how do we improve standards and maintain some kind of local public accountability and engagement in the context of councils’ losing their provider role and of the establishment of more and more Academies and free schools?

This blog first appeared on the website of Public Finance.


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