Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-108)
MS JULIA BLOIS, MR ROGER GITTINS AND MRS LYNN EDWARDS
TUESDAY 17 SEPTEMBER 2002
100. At the end of that, the Department for Education and Skills has a diversity agenda that believes you drive up standards by having specialist skills, foundation skills, city academies, you name it. It seems to me the three of you are all on board. This is the way to go. This will raise standards.
(Mr Gittins) That was not a decision in principle. I was asked earlier if we would go for that without the resources. It is a decision partly of pragmatism and goes back to that bidding culture. If all that money comes out of the education budget and 20 per cent is top sliced and put into diversity and so on, if you do not bid for your share of that 20 per cent, whether you agree with the principles or not
101. But do you?
(Mr Gittins) I do not personally agree with the whole issue of city academies.
102. Specialist schools?
(Mr Gittins) I feel each school has the ability to develop its own curriculum and its own strengths in any way it wishes and does not necessarily need to be constrained by what is quite an artificial bidding structure. I meant to bring my bid with me and I have not, but it is that thick and it has 500 separate targets in. The monitoring of that is huge. If you want to go down that road, yes, you can achieve wonders like that in an individual way for a very small number of children. The impact that has is, to me, really quite large and I do not think that is taken into account. What we should be doing is raising standards right across the board rather than separately.
103. There was a very articulate 15 year old in class that we started talking to this morning. I said, "What do you think of this school?" He said, "I think it could be improved." The deputy head was next to him, so he was pretty brave. I said, "Give me an example." He said, "Books. We do not get the books that they get in grammar schools." He knows and I thought it was a very interesting insight. There he was in a pretty average comprehensive saying, "I think I could do better."
(Ms Blois) Prior to the admissions system being changed, parents could apply for places in the right number of schools. We would be over-subscribed, pre-technology college status, because our staff and our head teachers worked hard to raise the profile of our school in all sorts of ways that were not particularly blindingly educational. We have a uniform. It is strictly adhered to. If you come to our school, this is the standard of dress you are expected to have. That impresses the parents. If you are strict on a minor issue, you are bound to be the same in their minds on the major issues. A lot of the admissions would be creamed off by King Edward's. The question you are asking is applicable to our school, so we had to look at what was available to us at the time to say is there a way we can raise our standards to the benefit of our pupils. That was one of the ways with the technology college bid. It is to do with the finances, yes. It brought a lot of equipment in and a lot of support for us and the fact that we could do it in partnership with our biggest rival, the independent school, was an added bonus. Yes, it has improved our situation. We have a boys' school down the road that is not doing as well as us.
104. Can I declare I am a member of the NUT and probe a bit further on the change in admissions? All of you have said that we are sitting in an improving LEA with improved schools and yet they have changed the admissions policy. Is this on account of diversity in schools? What has prompted this change and can you indicate what are the two or three key things which have changed in this admissions policy and why?
(Mr Gittins) I went onto the Admissions Forum about half-way through the discussions about the change and the thrust of the change was trying to allow a greater agreement of parental preference and also to try and provide a level playing field for all the schools. I am sure in every town and city of a reasonable size, there is a view among parents for whatever reason that they may migrate outwards. The situation was hugely difficult to explain how it worked previously. I have 180 places at school and 450 first preferences. I have to make 350 offers to fill 180 places because, under the old system, parents could have four first choices, one at King Edward School, one at a grammar school, one at a foundation school and then their first choice community school. In the area I was in, unless parents picked the right community school, we only offered to first choices. What they are able to do now under the new system is rank schools in order and the highest of the five where they meet the criteria, which may be selection or distance, is the one they get an offer for. The agenda of the LEA is to raise standards in all schools and persuade parents that all schools are good schools. That is certainly the message I send. However, there are still parents who would rather move their children three or four miles to the outskirts of the town than go to the school in the centre of town, irrespective of how good a school it is.
105. We will look at that in detail. It is an issue that we are going to be concerned about, particularly in light of diversity. The other area where you would hope the LEA would be supportive would be the other end, the exclusions. What is the policy in terms of exclusions in Birmingham?
(Mr Gittins) As a head teacher, I am at the sharp end of that when it comes to making decisions. I would have to say that the support that I have had in two and a half years from the exclusions office, a dedicated office within the LEA to provide advice for head teachers as well as support for parents and pupils in that situation, has been absolutely superb, much better than any other local authority I have worked with. The quality of staff and advice is absolutely excellent. The provision for prevention of exclusion and for dealing with young people who are excluded is, in my view, really very good.
106. Would the other two of you echo that?
(Ms Blois) Yes. We can buy into various schemes that the authority provides for college places on a 20 per cent day time, so some of our pupils feel the education system, they perceive, is not doing what they want. They can go to college. We have a specialist worker assigned to us by the LEA who comes in to discuss problem cases before they ever become a permanent exclusion.
(Mrs Edwards) We have just set up a teaching and learning centre for the individuals who would otherwise end up being repeatedly excluded. That is within the school. Before they go to the behavioural units, there is something in school so that we can take them out of particular lessons. Kids who otherwise would be suspended, excluded, permanent exclusion, looking for a new homethey stay in the community with the people they know. Hopefully it will work and they will become school members all the way through school.
(Ms Blois) When the pupils finally do leave us because they are excluded, some of them end up at various centres. Because of my work with COMPAC, the business and education partnership, I meet with a teacher from the centre. He takes great delight in telling me about our pupils and how well they have done. I can relate that back to school. That is a triumph for them and we are always pleased that, when they have moved to other centres, they have blossomed, so when you exclude a pupil it is not always the end of the line for us. We always find out what has happened to them.
107. You are very emotive about this. The union line on this is that one of the things putting off teacher recruitment and retention is discipline, violent pupils, but that is not the picture you have just given us.
(Ms Blois) There are always pupils for whom you are concerned. We deal with them as best we can in school. The criticism would be of management then. I am aware that I am trying hard not to criticise too much the management but the management of the discipline policies in school has been up for criticism by a large number of my colleagues. These pupils who persistently disrupt lessons are still in school and we do not go for exclusion unless it is an absolute last resort. We are coping with pupils like that as best we can.
108. You are finding it difficult to teach because of the level of indiscipline in your classrooms?
(Ms Blois) In some cases, yes.
109. Is that true of your school, Roger?
(Mr Gittins) There are two conflicting agendas here, the social inclusion agenda and the issues about effective teaching and learning in classrooms. They are sometimes seen by members of staff to be in conflict. What is trying to happen in Birmingham through Excellence in Cities and so on is the introduction of initiatives like learning mentors and so on to provide additional support for teachers and work with specific individuals to improve their behaviour and deal with the problem within school.
Chairman: I am going to halt the formal proceedings now. Thank you very much indeed.