At the end of last year the Council published its Education Strategy and Improvement Plan. It was approved by Sir Mike Tomlinson the government’s Education Commissioner for Birmingham, and then by Nicky Morgan.
On 16 March the Cabinet in Birmingham approved the Education Strategy and Improvement Plan – Next Steps (ESSIP). This document explains the aims for school improvement, the role of the BEP, the commissioning and funding arrangements, and the new District-based structure. Here we pick out the main issues and comment on them.
SUMMARY OF BCASE’S CONCERNS ABOUT THE NEW MODEL FOR THE LOCAL AUTHORITY
- It is a top-down managerial model which excludes teachers, parents, governors and communities
- It is a model for ‘school improvement’ without any evidence-based educational rationale
- It is a model based narrowly on SATs and GCSE results and Ofsted grades, with no wider vision of education
- It is a model for the outsourcing of education provision
- It is a model which has not been properly consulted on with the range of education stakeholders
We begin with the question of consultation. ESSIP claims that consultation took place with ‘Education stakeholders from schools and Academies through consortia meetings and fora’. BCASE would like to know who exactly were consulted, and how. We note for example that the ESSIP has not been presented to and discussed by the Education Scrutiny Committee. Why not? Has there been consultation with the Birmingham Governors Network? And with the school unions? What were the concerns raised during consultation, and how has the Council responded to them?
The Birmingham Education Partnership
The Council has commissioned the BEP to deliver School Improvement for 3 years commencing September 2015.
The option of open market procurement was rejected. BCASE welcomes the decision to keep responsibility for school improvement in the Birmingham school system rather than commissioning private for-profit organisations. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that school to school support is the most effective means of school improvement.
However, there is no prohibition on BEP itself employing private organisations on a commercial basis, as in fact it is currently doing with CfBT for peer review.
BEP currently involves some 300 of the more than 400 state schools in Birmingham. They pay an annual subscription to fund school support activities and a part-time Chief Executive. This is public money and BCASE believes that the names of the participating schools should be made public, so we can see which. Teachers, parents and governors should question the management and governing bodies of the schools which have chosen not to join the BEP and demand that they do, because we need a school system in Birmingham of all schools working together for the benefit of the city and its children, not schools competing at each other’s expense.
The aims of the ESSIP
The principal aim is of course ‘school improvement’:
‘A key strategic ambition stated in the plan is to ensure that every child in this city has access to a school that is good or outstanding. This will only be achieved if school improvement offers the full range of development of excellence mixed with challenge and support to schools where this is required.’
At present there are 27 schools in Special Measures, including 11 academies, and many more which need support to improve. The question is, has BEP got the capacity to support all these schools effectively? By capacity we don’t just mean a sufficient number of schools willing to offer support. Support has to be of the right quality to be effective. Being a good or outstanding school doesn’t automatically mean that it is good or outstanding at supporting other schools.
There is a large body of evidence available nationally and internationally about effective knowledge and practice transfer, sharing and co-production among schools. It is not a simple matter of transplanting good practice: schools and their contexts vary and support has to be tailor-made to that. Nor should it be a one-way model of ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ schools – all schools can learn from and offer something to partnerships. And not just management-level support but involvement by classroom teachers working together across schools. See, to give just two examples of many, the City Challenge programme evaluation and the report on Joint Practice Development.
What is worrying is that there is no mention at all of these issues in ESSIP – no mention of what evidence-based pedagogic approach might be most appropriate as the framework for school-to-school support. Nor, surprisingly, is there any mention of the earlier proposal for a new post (not yet filled), an Assistant Director for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of teachers and headteachers, who would actually be the linch-pin of the school improvement strategy.
A narrow vision confined to test scores and Ofsted grades
While it is a priority that schools in Special Measures or at risk are given prompt and effective support, the educational aims of Birmingham schools and the local authority should not be limited to the narrow requirements of SATs and GCSE scores and Ofsted grades. What wider and deeper educational vision does ESSIP have?
The document refers to two elements. One is ‘a rich and broad curriculum’. There is no indication of what this might mean in practice, or whether it is anything more than what the national curriculum requires. The other is this:
‘A Birmingham education is distinctive. It embraces the diversity, the rich cultural heritage and world class resources that we have in the city. We want to build upon this tradition and continue to promote an ethos of civic pride and active citizenship with all of our children and young people.’
The first two sentences refer to what ESSIP regards as already existing. But no reference or evidence is provided. To what extent is it true of Birmingham schools? Does the local authority know? In which case it should provide rich evidence of good practice to help schools. Or is it really just a wish disguised as a statement of fact?
The third sentence raises some questions. What does ‘an ethos of civic pride’ mean? There is much to be proud of in Birmingham, but also much to be ashamed of and angry about: gross inequalities of class, race and gender, poverty, unemployment, savage cuts in social welfare, ecological issues… To what extent does ESSIP see these included in a critical conception of ‘civic pride’, and expect schools to help children and young people to engage with them in the context of ‘active citizenship’? Will developing this be part of BEP’s brief? What is the relationship of ‘school improvement’ to these wider aims? How will progress be evaluated? And what if schools choose to ignore? Again, ESSIP is silent.
According to ESSIP ‘Key elements of the Education and Schools Strategy and Improvement Plan are currently supported by a costed and funded programme of investment of £3.257m in 2015/16, £2.990m in 2016/17 and £1,330m in 2017/18. Work will be undertaken over the course of the following 2 years to identify supplementary funding for other areas of the programme and secure recurrent funding from 2017/18.’
‘The funded element of the Improvement Plan earmarks funding to support the new District arrangements at a cost of approximately £750k in a full year (part of the overall £1.8m), for staffing i.e. 10 District Coordinators at 0.6 fte each and 10 District Support Officers at 0.5 fte each. The balance of the £1.8m (i.e. £1.05m in a full year) will be utilised in conjunction with the Birmingham Education Partnership to deliver school improvement based on an agreed specification and with set outcomes.’
Will this be enough to properly fund the support that is needed?
‘Alternative Delivery Models’, i.e. outsourcing provision
ESSIP says ‘One recommendation from the ESSIP is to generate improvements through partnership
(Alternative Delivery Models – ADMs).’ The Council will ‘Undertake detailed options exercise and business case on the future of those services that were identified within the Education Services Review that could transition out of the council into alternative delivery models’.
The new District-based structure
The BEP Board is made up, with a few exceptions, of headteachers representating schools in each of the 10 Districts or constituencies of Birmingham. The ESSIP builds on this District structure by establishing a Leadership and Commissioning Group for each District, with a District Co-ordinator, and a city wide Education and Schools Board with representatives from each District. Here are the details:
Each District will have a Leadership and Commissioning Group which will ‘provide a robust mechanism for collaborative leadership, co-design and commissioning and decision-making across partner organisations at local level.’
This will be informed by ‘regular data and performance reporting produced for each District
covering attainment, attendance, exclusions and socio-demographic trends, to be put
in place to focus the work of the Districts’.
The District Leadership and Commissioning Group will ‘shape provision around local needs for City wide services (for example CAMHs/Think Family/School Nursing/Speech and Language) and build in commitment with providers to work in this way’.
So a key role of the District Groups will be to act as the agents of the outsourcing of provision to private organisations, whether commercial or ‘third sector’. In addition, outsourcing will also be carried out through the BEP and S4E – the external ‘social enterprise’ that mainly consists of the old LA Music Service, but now due to be given a greatly expanded role. This raises the question of accountability. How will these privatised service providers be held to account? By ‘accountability’ we don’t just mean contracts with quantitative performance targets, we mean genuine accountability to service users and staff through ongoing dialogue and democratic partnership. But ESSIP is silent on this.
The District Groups ‘will also play a critical role in ensuring that schools and the local authority hold one another to account for their respective roles and responsibilities’. No information is given as to how this holding to account will take place. Or how academies and academy chains run by unaccountable private organisations will be held to account.
‘A new role of District Co-ordinator will be created who will work with school leaders and community organisations to build ownership and consensus on issues and help shape collaborative solutions. They will also provide a ‘local face’ for education in each District enhancing communication and co-ordination.’
A city wide Education and Schools Board would also be set [up] with a representative from each of the District Commissioning Groups attending along with the local authority and representatives. The Board will act as the point of escalation from the District Commissioning Groups and address issues that require a city wide response’. It will ‘oversee the work of the Districts and co-ordinate City wide strategies and plans and establish clear processes for decisions that relate to schools’. In fact this Board already exists, composed of headteachers.
A top-down and exclusionary managerial model
The question that BCASE asks is will anyone else be represented on the District Leadership and Commissioning Groups apart from headteachers? They should embody and represent the local area partnerships between schools and communities that education needs to be based on. Furthermore, all these stakeholder partners should also be represented on the city wide Education and Schools Board.
That means there should be representatives of teachers and other school workers and their unions, not just headteachers, there should be representatives of school governors, and there should be representatives of the local community (best elected from Ward Committee meetings). (This would provide an ideal basis for a Children’s Zone approach, as BCASE has advocated.) But there is no mention of any of this in the ESSIP document. Instead, it presents an entirely top-down and exclusionary managerial model.
A principal theme of Albert Bore’s ‘Leader’s Policy Statement’ (1 July 2014) was ‘A Democratic City’ ‘To enable residents and communities to have a bigger say and take control we will seek to build the support necessary to make this happen for real.’ ‘…we will commit to devolving more power within the city, to support greater community leadership, democracy and flexibility in our local neighbourhoods.’ The ESSIP decisions are in complete contradiction to the city council’s rhetoric about local democracy and community participation.