Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Without feathers? My LA swan song.

So, that's that then. Today was my last day working at Gloucestershire LA after nearly 5 years of wading neck deep in data; supporting schools, battling Ofsted, and trying not to make a nuisance of myself but generally failing. It's been quite an experience being on the frontline of school improvement during this most challenging and bewildering period of change in education; and (I must admit) I've enjoyed it. Most of the time. So when I started to think about what I wanted to do next, I realised I didn't really want to do anything different; I wanted more of the same. I like doing what I do so I should carry on doing it. Taking the plunge and becoming self-employed seemed the obvious (if somewhat scary) choice, and with more change in the post this year (and the next, and the year after that) now is probably the best time to do it. Going freelance will enable me to support a wider variety of schools, get involved in collaborative projects, and work with 3rd party organisations. I've got a laptop, a mobile, and a logo; what could possibly go wrong?

I joined Gloucestershire LA's school improvement team in January 2010, after 4 years as a landscape gardener/stay at home Dad. Prior to that I was a data analyst for the LSC (remember them?), And before that I tried to be a teacher but really wasn't good enough (in case anyone isn't aware, teaching is actually quite hard work). In other previous lives I've been a database administrator (fun!) and completed a Ph.D in Granites (that was a low point). I also worked on a chicken farm when I was 16. I'll return to that later. 

When I took the job in 2010, most of Gloucestershire's school services were based at the Hucclecote Centre. Those familiar with education in Gloucestershire will probably know it well. Famed for its training courses - and probably even more famed for its lunches - it was a vibrant place to work. But from May 2010, with the coalition government in power signalling the end of National Strategies and the start of austerity, the writing was on the wall for the centre and many who worked there. Hucclecote (or Chucklecote, or Chuckles) was one of the last of its kind, and its days were numbered. The last gasp was an archaeological dig for some foundations in the car park. And that was it - we relocated to Shire Hall. No more Chuckles. No more lunches.

In a very short space of time we'd gone from a large community of 200 people based in an old secondary school, to a team of fewer than 20 in one room (Well, I was in a yellow-painted office for a bit but it gives me headaches to think about it). Now, I don't want to bore you with a blow by blow account of what I've been doing for the last few years but I do want to give you some simple stats (obviously!). In September 2012, shortly after we'd moved to Shire Hall, and been pared down to the bare bones, around 70% of schools in Gloucestershire were rated good or outstanding, and 60 primary schools (out of 240) were satisfactory. Our team's focus became these schools, whilst trying to spot those good or outstanding schools that were at risk of travelling south (bear in mind that nearly all secondary schools are converter or sponsored academies so the team were mainly primary focussed). Wind forward 2 years and now 90% of primary schools are rated good or outstanding; and 92% of primary pupils attend a good or outstanding school, the highest in the south west. An extraordinary rate of improvement due, in no small part, to the intervention, challenge and support of Gloucestershire's excellent school improvement team. So when I hear snide remarks about the LA - classics include "Is anyone left?", "what do they actually do?", or "must be like the Marie Celeste in there" - I get a tad annoyed. It was heartening to hear Mr Drew (of Educating Essex) at Cheltenham Literature Festival this month support his LA, stating that he felt no more 'free' now as an academy than he did before conversion, and that he'd only ever had great support from his LA. 

Say what you like about LAs, my (very experienced) colleagues work bloody hard for one common purpose: to support schools. That's it. And their approach to school improvement evidently works. Personally, I can't see why a high performing LA with a proven track record in school improvement, of which Gloucestershire is certainly one, couldn't be an academy sponsor, both in and out of county. They'd do a fine job. Maybe a better job than some other organisations. Food for thought. 

So, what now for LAs. Well, regardless of what happens in terms of the proliferation  of academies, I believe there needs to be a strong, experienced, well trained, locally-based school improvement service and the LA is the obvious place for it. Many recent inspections of LA school improvement services, where the LA has been deemed to be ineffective, have had a recurring theme: that the LA has not done enough to support and challenge the academies in its area. This is a bit of a kick in the eye considering the whole premise of becoming an academy is that the school is removed from LA control. It would seem that the DfE wishes to take credit for the successes but pass the buck when things go wrong. Surely that can't be the case, can it?

Which brings me neatly back to the chicken farm I worked on when I was 16. One day, down in shed 1, I noticed a tiny, featherless chicken running amongst the thousands of other birds. Every chicken it ran past would peck at it mercilessly, so on it ran, darting left and right, back and forth, on a futile mission to avoid attack. Every step was met with another blow. A depressing and pathetic sight. I mentioned it to the foreman later on that day and asked if we should put the poor thing out of its misery. His response? "If we kill it, they'll just start picking on another one. Best keep it alive as long as possible".

I find myself thinking about that poor chicken a lot these days, running without feathers under continuous attack. Is that why LAs now exist? Kept alive solely to sustain attacks and deflect attention. Have they been reduced to mere whipping boys for government policy? A cynical view perhaps but understandable when you read another inspection report of ineffective school improvement services. And whilst some in government may see things that way, the reality is that LAs are still here, they do have a responsibility for school improvement; and it's a job they take very seriously and do really well. My colleagues are ace!

Rumours of local authorities' demise have been greatly exaggerated. 



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