A year-long war of attrition between the Government and Birmingham council leaders over the performance of the city’s state-run schools appears to have ended decisively in favour of Education Secretary Michael Gove.
For the first time in my memory, Tory council leader Mike Whitby has stated clearly that some schools are not good enough and that something needs to be done to deliver sustained improvement.
A new Vision for Education strategy approved by the council cabinet says that although exam results have improved from extremely low levels there is still “great variability” in terms of individual performance.
It goes on to warn that the rate of GCSE pass improvement is slowing down in Birmingham and notes that 42 per cent of young people finish their education without attaining the “gold standard” of five GCSE A*-C passes including English and maths. This means that getting on for half of 16-year-olds leaving school will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to get a job.
The document, enthusiastically endorsed by Coun Whitby, commits the council to develop far greater choice across the city by turning struggling schools into academies and free schools and by introducing University Technical Colleges.
This will be music to the ears of Mr Gove and former Labour Schools Minister Lord Adonis, who have been critical of education standards in Birmingham. Lord Adonis told the city’s Lunar Society last March that getting council leaders to approve academies had been like “pulling teeth” – a comment he has since repeated.
As things stand, just 25 of Birmingham’s 374 primary and secondary schools have attained academy status, which brings them under the sponsorship of an independent backer and frees them from local authority control. A further 41 schools have expressed an interest in becoming academies.
In a speech that deputy council leader Paul Tilsley unsuccessfully attempted to have banned, Lord Adonis claimed that Birmingham was struggling to tackle failings in many of its comprehensive schools because the stronger performance of the city’s grammar’s schools pushed up grades in the city, allowing councillors to rest on their laurels.
Lord Adonis claimed Birmingham’s schools system “fails far too many of their children” and argued that employers should be “campaigning from the rooftops” for change.
His attack from the left might have been predicted, coming as it did just before city council elections which saw the Tory-Lib Dem coalition lose seats to Labour. But the council leadership must have been unprepared for an astonishing intervention by the high-Tory intellectual Mr Gove a few weeks later.
Answering a question in the House of Commons from Edgbaston Labour MP Gisela Stuart, the Education Secretary said: “As my noble friend Lord Adonis has pointed out, education in Birmingham needs many things to change, and I suspect that the honourable lady and I know just how much change is needed.”
The city’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition has been concerned about Birmingham’s image since taking office in 2004. Indeed, some people might argue that the image-thing has been overplayed. Nevertheless, the prospects of inward investment, attracting multi-national firms to set up headquarters in Birmingham, are bound to be damaged if local schools are seen to be poorly performing, unemployment is high and the skills base is low.
As the new vision document sets out: “We want employers to see that our young people have the necessary skills so that business and technology is drawn to the city.”
The silence on this whole issue lately from Tory cabinet schools member Les Lawrence has been noted. Coun Lawrence makes little secret of his view that academies and free schools are no panacea to Birmingham’s difficulties, particularly in a multi-ethnic city where increasingly children arrive in the classrooms unable to speak English and are therefore unlikely to find it easy to pass exams.
Coun Lawrence was not at the cabinet meeting to hear Coun Whitby praise the new education vision. His absence was blamed on “personal reasons” by the council leader. If he had been there, he might have felt somewhat redundant because Coun Whitby declared his intention to “take a personal interest” in delivering the schools’ vision.
The council leader told the cabinet: “There is a perceived under-performance in one or two of our schools. We have to look at English and maths. We want to be synonymous with educational excellence, we want children to have the best education.”
The under-performance is actually very real rather than perceived. And it’s more than one or two schools. As the vision document makes clear, 27 primary schools and three secondary schools are deemed to have been below standard for a number of years. And urgent improvements are required. To put this in context, almost 10 per cent of Birmingham primaries are under-performing.
There is of course a debate to be had about whether the criticism from Mr Gove and Lord Adonis is fair. Birmingham’s GCSE pass rate is the best among the largest English cities, having risen from extremely low levels since 2005. However, while the percentage of children attaining five or more GCSE A*-C passes including maths and English now matches the national average, the rate of progress is slowing down and there is “great variability” in terms of individual school performance.
Crucially, the Birmingham Vision for Education document makes it clear that radical restructuring involving moving to academy status or as part of a network of academy schools may be the only way to help schools with a history of poor performance.
It must be particularly challenging for Coun Lawrence to sign up to a strategy that so clearly backs Mr Gove’s reforms. When the Education Secretary remarked that many things needed to change in Birmingham, Coun Lawrence called him an “attainment denier” and added that constant denigration of teachers, schools and pupils was nothing short of “disingenuous”.
It is understood that Coun Lawrence was not present when Mr Gove visited Birmingham recently to discuss education matters with Mike Whitby. A council press officer said she couldn’t quite remember whether Coun Lawrence was in on the meeting or not. Certainly, the cabinet schools member was not mentioned in a subsequent council press release praising the new relationship between Mr Gove and Coun Whitby.
Coun Lawrence was definitely not at the cabinet meeting when the vision document was approved. But he did provide this neutral comment courtesy of a council press release, without of course mentioning academies: “Birmingham schools have performed well in the face of previous school improvement challenges. Overall school performance is equal to or ahead of that of other core cities, including London.
“However, there remains variability in terms of individual school performance. Our aim is that all children and young people have the best possible opportunities and we know more can be done to secure further improvement.”
It is certain that the state of Birmingham’s schools will be an issue if there is a mayoral election later this year. Former Labour MP Sion Simon, who is seeking his party’s nomination to run for mayor, is demanding powers to close failing schools and to set up academies. The two other Labour hopefuls, Sir Albert Bore and Gisela Stuart, endorsed similar demands as set out in the party’s Birmingham response to Government consultation on mayors.
Given that almost one-fifth of Birmingham primary and secondary schools are now either academies or moving in that direction, it would appear that the number of traditional council-run schools can only fall further over the next few years.
The trend raises important questions about the size of the council’s education administration workforce, and its future viability. Not all independently-run academies will want to buy in expensive back room services from the city council, one imagines.
- Gove: Academy opponents ‘Trots’ (bbc.co.uk)