Last week Ofsted officially declared Wolverhampton’s Primary Schools to be at the bottom of the English League. By that they meant that a lower proportion of primary children go to schools rated good or outstanding by inspectors than in any other local authority area in the country.
Just pause and reflect on that for a moment. At a time when a good education is probably more important than ever in giving young people an opportunity, our city sends fewer young pupils to schools rated good or above than any of the other 149 authorities listed in the report.
Although there are good and outstanding schools in Wolverhampton, and many teachers do a great job, the human cost of this situation is that too many local children are not getting the education they deserve, too much opportunity is being lost and young people in our city are being held back from fulfilling their potential. If that does not make us determined to do better I don’t know what would.
The picture painted by the Ofsted report of performance at secondary level was a bit better, but not that much. Here too we were deep in the bottom half of the table.
I believe the reaction to this shocking verdict is as important as the verdict itself. You can’t solve a problem unless you acknowledge you have one. So we have to begin by accepting what was said and asking ourselves what we are going to do about it. It is no time for excuses and evasions, no time for shooting the messenger, denying the results or trying to explain away failure. In fact too much of that is partly what led to this situation in the first place.
The most tired and lazy excuse for educational failure is to blame deprivation. But to do so is profoundly anti progressive and educationally wrong. There are plenty of areas with high deprivation levels that did much better than Wolverhampton in the table -; Sandwell, Liverpool, Middlesborough, Hackney. None of these places are without their social problems but they all have a far higher proportion of children going to schools rated good or outstanding compared to Wolverhampton.
And apart from being wrong in terms of the facts of school performance, there is a deeper problem with the deprivation argument (or as it has sometimes been expressed to me the “these kids can’t learn” argument). The problem with this is that it writes off the children. By explaining away failure in this way we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to do something about it, and that is something we should never do. I don’t believe for one second that Wolverhampton’s children are any less capable than children anywhere. They should never be written off. They deserve the same chances in life as any other children. But they are not getting them.
So the first thing we have to do is accept the scale of the challenge. This is the single biggest challenge facing our city, the single biggest barrier to unfulfilled lives. We ought to make it our core mission, the first line of what we are about, to raise the level of educational standards, ambitions and expectations throughout the city. Then we ought to ask ourselves if we have in place the tools to do it.
Of course the key responsibility for school improvement must lie with schools themselves. Leadership is critical to performance. It is a tough job, but inspiring head teachers around the country, and some in our city, are doing a fantastic job. We need much more of that.
But where it is not in place there has to be what the experts call the challenge and improvement function, either from the council or from other outside agencies. When you are bottom of the league, you need to have the best school improvement team in the country, and if you don’t have it you should be trying to recruit it. Do we have that in Wolverhampton? Is that the conversation taking place at local council level or between the council and the Government? I certainly hope so because the situation demands it.
The same goes with any structures that are in place that ought to be delivering improvement but are not. If that’s the case they need to be changed and changed urgently.
Finally we need curiosity about what works in raising standards. There have been many reforms in education in recent years in terms of leadership training, structures, partnerships and funding. Are we curious enough locally about what has driven up standards elsewhere? Have we dropped all ideological hang ups or objections from special interests in favour of the only question which matters -; what is best for the children and will increase their opportunities the most? Historically this has not been the case. It must be now.
If we react to Ofsted’s shocking verdict on schools in the city with a passionate determination to turn the situation around we have a chance of making lasting improvements to young lives. But if we try to explain it away or make excuses for failure, we will be deserting our duty to the children and will end up complicit in opportunity denied. As your local MP I am determined we take the first path.