Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 110-119)




  110. Can I welcome Andrew Arnott, Ruth Harker and Christine Owen to our deliberations. You will know that this is quite a special occasion for us because we very rarely hold formal sessions outside the Houses of Parliament. We did in Paris at the OECD in March; we did something like 18 months ago in Oxford in our Early Years inquiry, but we are here in Birmingham for a week. We are trying to understand the education system in this largest city in Europe under one government if you like, and we are here because it is a much improved city in education terms but it is also a city facing many challenges. We thought the combination of meeting as many people as we could and visiting as many schools as we could across a whole range would be of enormous help to us. Some of us were saying today when we came back from our most recent visit that we are beginning to get a sense of the city and its educational service. I think we are getting there but we have been looking forward particularly to meeting three heads who have such a wealth of experience. I know that all of three of you have taught in other schools in the city and have wide experience. Will you forgive us because some of the questions we ask you will seem quite naive to people who have been in Birmingham a long time. None of us is from Birmingham. We cover all the political parties and we are from very different parts of the country. We have just started our inquiry into secondary education and we are looking at secondary education across the piste and so some of the things we will be asking you are to inform our broader inquiry. One of the things that is of particular interest to us is this diversity agenda that the Government has, the view that if you have specialist schools and city academies and foundation schools and so on—and there are many ways now to be a different and diverse institution—in some way this will liberate the abilities of schools to deliver higher standards and better achievement for pupils. We are very keen to look at that in the first phase of our inquiry. I wonder what you think of this diversity argument. Have all three of you been involved in specialist schools? I know two of you certainly have.
  (Mr Arnott) We have applied to become a specialist school and we have had our outline bid accepted by the city, so it has got their stamp of approval on it. They have organised this latest round of applications which they will support and put forward to the DFES in phases. I think I have been at my school the shortest of the three of us and when I went there I found that it was weak in technology subjects and that was why I wanted to go for technology college status, as a means of raising standards in those subjects. We have had our bid accepted and the city is going to sponsor that bid in September 2003 to March 2004. We have to have it in by March 2004. We are a school that is not a specialist school but we want to become one because we think it will help lever up standards of teaching in the school.

  111. What do you think the specialist schools innovation is doing for education in Birmingham?
  (Mrs Owen) Perhaps I could answer that because on the map you will see that Bartley Green is actually one of these outer most deprived areas. It stands out on its own alongside the inner city.

  112. Where are you?
  (Mrs Owen) Bartley Green, in the bottom left hand maroon bit. When I went to Bartley Green it was a nearly failing school, being warned by HMI etc. For us, therefore, having lifted ourselves out of any threat from OFSTED of serious weakness, etc, we saw it as a way of maintaining our improvement and of really having quite a tight boundary framework but also getting additional resources to help us. I have put in my submission that what I think it is particularly good about things like the specialist schools movement is that you set your targets, you decide what you are going for, and they are challenging and you have to meet them, but then you do get some additional resources to help you. I have also pointed out that there are several disadvantages of course for schools generally in the diversity agenda. First, to raise 50,000 for sponsorship would have been impossible in my area. We raised 5,000 and went all out. If it was not that the Technology Colleges Trust found me an anonymous donor and also had a pot of money, I guess from the Government, to sponsor the EIC schools, we would not have stood a chance and that is unfair because schools in these circumstances do not have access to that sort of sponsorship. The other issue is, like for Andy, okay, 2004 but that is quite a way down the road. What happens to those schools who are not special in any way? I do feel that something will have to be done about those schools because usually they are in the most challenging circumstances where they are fighting to hold the line and improve and then everybody else is getting this leg up and they are still trying to maintain their standards and are probably being berated for not having made more progress too. I think the principle is a liberating one if there is also more support to those who need it.
  (Mrs Harker) We have just been awarded specialist school status. From September we are one of the first Business Enterprise colleges nationally, so in a sense I know what it is like not to be a specialist school. We have been affiliated to the Technology Colleges Trust for many years though and that is partly because I have always seen that as a very innovative organisation and have attended conferences and found that to be very helpful to the school. However, I think there is a tendency that schools only become affiliated simply because they want to become specialist schools. I think myself that in the early days of specialist schools the requirement to have partner schools was not exactly a paper exercise but it was not given as much importance as it is now. We have got two partner secondary schools, one the George Dixon International School which I think you visited, which has had very troubled times, and Harborne Hill which has had equally troubled times. Having bid in recent months, we have put a great deal of thought into the way that we are going to work together. Indeed, the partnership, certainly with George Dixon, goes back way beyond our application. I think that there was and is a danger that those schools who currently are not in a position to bid remain at a disadvantage because there is an advantage in the funding and all the other things. There is no doubt about that: the funding is very important. I do think that the recent emphasis on that partnership is the right way to do it. The two schools that have come into partnership with us have done so because they think that by being in partnership standards in those schools will rise significantly, as we think ours will as well, but ultimately they want to become specialist schools as well. Having said that, we will learn from them even though they are in perhaps more challenging circumstances than we are. That actually brings a special sort of experience which I think we can benefit from.
  (Mr Arnott) On my note I have made a point about the hierarchy of secondary schools as my third bullet point. The problem with levels of diversity is that, as Ruth has implied, there are winners and losers. The losers tend to be schools that are struggling and either cannot raise the sponsorship or they have other barriers in front of them. When Chris was explaining her background at Bartley Green, we are in a very similar position. I have been at my school 18 months, a school that was identified as a failing school and we had to bring round. One of the things to do with diversity is the Secretary of State's recent comments about the hierarchy of secondary schools. The intention as far as I understand it is to offer less prescription to schools that are higher up the pecking order, the specialist schools, but not to schools that are seen to be lower down the pecking order, and we are a school facing challenging circumstances which is right at the bottom; I think we are one of the 300 schools in the country that achieved less than 15 per cent five A*-Cs this summer. It seems to me, and I have put it in here, that it does seem a little perverse that it is schools that are really struggling to build and rebuild and improve and who are tackling really major issues that are not given the opportunity to diversify and be innovative in the curriculum with their method of teaching. Having said that, it is infinitely better now and getting better than it was in the early days of national curriculum in the late eighties and early nineties when it was so prescribed that there was very little room for innovation or individuality at all.
  (Mrs Harker) What about beacon schools? Do you include those in your diversity?

  113. Yes.
  (Mrs Harker) We are a beacon school. Until this term we were the only co-educational beacon school in Birmingham, the others being selective girls' schools. We were invited to apply for beacon status in 1999. We actually declined to do that partly because I had a problem with the concept, and to a certain extent I still do.

  114. Why is that?
  (Mrs Harker) Because I think that it is built on the basis that the data identifies the differences between schools. I think there is increasing evidence that the greatest differences lie within schools and although a school like my own can be identified as being particularly effective, I know as a headteacher that there are some areas which are less effective. Obviously schools are constantly changing and there is this implication that if you are not eligible to be a beacon school you have not got strengths. That is absolutely not the case. Even schools in very challenging circumstances, sometimes schools with serious weaknesses, have a very strong department here or there and particular strengths and I do think that it is very difficult. To be quite honest, when we were invited again to be a beacon school the following year, we were already receiving quite a lot of visitors and we decided that we might as well get the funding to support that. It is also to do with the issue of how schools change. There is evidence that some of the schools that we have worked with have benefited from that and I think the George Dixon school is one of those.

  115. Benefited from what?
  (Mrs Harker) From working with us as a beacon school. There is no doubt about that. George Dixon School has completely re-written their curriculum and timetable as a result of working with us and that I think is helping the school. There are clearly other ways in which schools which have visited us have benefited, and we have obviously learned from visitors who come to see us anyway. At the same time there are no quick fixes and coming into a school and seeing a good idea might or might not work back in the home school. It is a lot to do with the conditions in that school and that is something that is quite difficult for us to influence simply from one-off links with schools.

Mr Chaytor

  116. This is a question in particular to Andrew. In respect of the question of diversity and hierarchy, looking at Birmingham specifically, what are the three things that you think ought to be done to reduce the degree of hierarchy of schools in Birmingham?
  (Mr Arnott) The first and most important one has been done. When Professor Tim Brighouse told heads last year that he wanted every school in Birmingham to eventually become a specialist school, that immediately lifted schools that were struggling and certainly it gave me hope in my role of bringing a school on and trying to build morale and improve things in there. That is the first thing. Rather than three things, I think it is support, all sorts of support, certainly for schools in challenging circumstances, and I have mentioned this a couple of times in my memorandum. In the last few years we have had a punitive system which has been based on punishing schools that are under achieving. All three of us have experience of working in very challenging schools and schools do not consciously set out to under achieve. As Ruth said, we have lots of different people in there and strengths and weaknesses within our schools, and schools develop and change radically. The key thing I think is to say that all schools can achieve this if they want to, and certainly the role of specialist schools is a major lever for improvement, partly because it attracts resources and partly because again it lifts the morale of pupils, teachers and the community as well. Our community in Stockland Green, to be honest with you, has very little going for it. We work quite closely with the community. We have a lot of support as we are working in our build-up towards going for specialist school status. A lot of our parents and our partners think it is quite special because of the word "special". This is something that they are all for and that they support. Raising the expectations of everybody, giving everybody the chance to feel that they can achieve and supporting all schools—those are the key things.

  117. I would like to put a question to Ruth who in her submission referred to the area inspection recently.
  (Mrs Harker) The post-16 one, yes.

  118. That is an area I am interested in. Can you tell us what the essence of the conclusions of the area inspection was? Later we might want to ask for a copy of it.
  (Mrs Harker) The area wide inspection looked at provision in the schools and colleges and the training providers as well as focusing on post-16. In relation to schools, one of the main conclusions was that actually schools were doing pretty well. The key issues relating to schools though were that we need to work more closely with the community in terms of addressing the local needs, perhaps looking more at the diversity of courses. Schools still tend to be fairly narrow in the curriculum, generally offering the traditional AS/A level routes, and that is not appropriate for all. We had picked that up as a group of schools anyway but certainly that was one of the main findings. It was less conclusive about take-up rates. In relation to the 11-18 schools, the post-16 take-up rate is pretty good and it is actually very close to the national average. The difficulty comes in the 11-16 schools where it dips, and so one of the conclusions was working much more closely in networks and partnerships 14-19 to try and bridge what can be a bit of a barrier at that 16 age level at the end of Key Stage 4.

  119. You specifically mention in your report that there are five schools currently with sixth forms of 50-100 pupils and three with sixth forms of below 50.
  (Mrs Harker) Yes.


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