Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-144)



  140. Is there any way that under the system as it exists you could, say, force the grammar schools to take problem children?
  (Mrs Owen) I would like to see that happen. Certainly some of those more advantageous schools suggest heavily to young people that the school down the road, which might be me because I have got a grammar school in my area, has spaces and if they do not want to go to permanent exclusion it might be in their interest to go there. Again I do feel that there is a willingness, certainly in Birmingham because we have had so much experience now of networking and sharing, that this is not beyond question. I think there are many heads of governing bodies who would be willing (there are a few that would not) to work it out if we had this proviso, as we did with BSS, that if it does not work out, no form filling, no inquiries, no panels, "We will take the child away, we will take them back, we will do some more work with them and either we will come back to you or we will go to one of your colleagues and ask for another start in a school."

Mr Turner

  141. You were quite complimentary about the local education authority and about the Chief Education officer. Could I just quote something which was given in evidence yesterday: "All too frequently, the LEA appears to feel the need to bid for involvement in every new initiative and pilot project. There appears to be little evaluation or prioritisation of what is on offer. This results in added pressure on Birmingham teachers." Is that unfair?
  (Mrs Harker) There is a bidding culture. It does worry me. I do not think it is just the LEA. Individual schools these days have to spend a great deal of time bidding in order to try and get something and when you bid you are never quite sure so I can understand the LEA taking that approach because I think it is one that many of us are pushed into taking in schools. I think it is a little bit unfair, although I know where the person who said that is coming from because there is a lot going on. The fact is we do not all have to get involved in it. The collegiate is a good example. It is an opt-in thing in most cases. My view is that that does keep us at the leading edge of developments. Perhaps it could be better planned; I do not know, but it certainly keeps us at the leading edge.
  (Mrs Owen) I think there could be lots of initiatives where we could say this could have been better or that could have been better, but when we look at the totality of it we are all pretty practised at saying no. Even if it is Tim's baby we do not just go along with it.
  (Mrs Harker) We say, "How much is there in it for us?".
  (Mrs Owen) I said, "No, because that is going to distract me from my major task", so there is some truth in it.
  (Mr Arnott) I am in the early days of running a school that needs to be brought forward. I have a very clear set of priorities and I only bid for anything that is very focused on our improvement plan because I do not want to distract teachers from the main job which is to hit the half dozen main targets that we are working towards. We have a strict approach to bidding, that we do not distract ourselves from the main theme. If we think it is going to be of benefit then we will look at it, but in practice we have restricted our bids in the last 18 months to the specialist school bid for the reasons that I have given. I think we might have bid for one or two things but we certainly have not allowed it to distract us. The collegiate idea is a good one and I think that as the school grows and becomes more confident then we will be able to look at these things. Schools are individual. They are little communities and they are all different is what I am saying, and we have to work to the strengths of our schools. It is our job as heads to nurture that community and to make it the best place because that is where the children are.
  (Mrs Harker) I think that one of the differences about the LEA under Tim is that the balance of pressure and support has always been there. Whilst there has been pressure, and sometimes he comes at you with your targets, "What are you going to do about this?", there is always that support. Whilst there might be pressure on occasions to get involved in perhaps too many initiatives, at the same time it is within a supportive context. That is one of the things that some people from other LEAs tell me is lacking. There is pressure but there is not the support as well.

  142. Somebody said in the 1980s said, "The next best thing to a magic wand is a good head". When the good head leaves, or the good Chief Education Officer for that matter, what is it systematically that should be put in place in case the next one is not quite such a bright spark?
  (Mrs Harker) Systems can and will change with time. It is more to do with the culture. Tim has left such a strong culture in Birmingham so that, although he might not be the strongest person systems wise, and he would be the first to admit that, he has changed the culture and I think that that is such a powerful force that without systems here there and everywhere it will remain.
  (Mrs Owen) It is growing people, is it not?
  (Mrs Harker) Yes.
  (Mr Arnott) Yes,.
  (Mrs Owen) We have said that. Tim and I had this discussion, that a good school can survive a poor head for a reasonable length of time, but a school in challenging circumstances cannot survive without really good leadership for any length of time at all. You always need that head, I think. They have always got to be of a certain standard, but then it is the people you have grown alongside that, the middle managers, the assistant heads. If you set enough high standards within your own institution then they will not all fall apart when people move on. That is the history of troubled schools. They do tend to go up and down very much when people move on. I think that is partly because people underestimate how long it takes to change the culture. I have been there eight years now and I am really seeing it, but after three years, four years, five years?
  (Mr Arnott) In the details that I sent out, the first thing on my list in the change process at Stockland Green process is the culture. That is what you have to target first.


  143. We are coming to the end of our time. One is always conscious that when witnesses come before the Committee they will get on the bus or in their car and suddenly think, "Why the hell did I not say such-and-such?" You have a quick chance to say before we finish this session anything you would like to leave with us that you do not think has been said in this short session.
  (Mr Arnott) Support, if nationally we could have the same amount of support that we have had in Birmingham from our Chief Education Officer. We talked about the balance of support and pressure. In order to get the culture that we have got in Birmingham we had to have our champion and that was Tim. There is no question of that. I would ask you to take back to central Government the thought that the education service needs support. We went through the eighties and the early nineties and I have to say that those of us who were working in the education service felt beleaguered, criticised, second-rate. What has happened in Birmingham in the last ten years has done wonders. We are now seeing it coming through in a large urban area. The education service does not just need pressure. It also needs lots of support. I am glad to see the green shoots coming through.

  144. So that is all down to Tim, not to Government policies?
  (Mr Arnott) Oh, no. I use Tim as an example. As I say, there are green shoots coming through. Excellence in Cities is doing fantastic things for children in urban deprived environments. That is wonderful. I am not saying blind support. There are schools that are not doing well and can improve and have to improve. There is accountability here, but we do need support.
  (Mrs Harker) It is along the same lines really. The profession is beleaguered at the moment. We are seeing increasing difficulties in getting good staff. I appointed one today because two people failed to turn up on the first day of term. It has never happened to me before. Having said that, we are still attracting more people into Birmingham than possibly into some of the other big cities. It is to do with morale and self-esteem and allowing people to do the job that they came into the profession to do—teach. Sometimes the agenda and the pressure from outside does not allow that to happen. It is really getting back to—I hate to use the word—basics, but that is what it is about.
  (Mrs Owen) I am going to follow the theme, I suppose. In terms of administration, bureaucracy and workload, I do feel that we need a degree of common sense and trust about monitoring and evaluating. I quote a form there that we had from the LEA because the LEA has been asked by the Government to account for this money. The form is ten pages long, requiring enormous detail. There is no way we are going to fill that in. If we want that then we have to have somebody full time monitoring and evaluating. To me that is crazy. We need people, as I have put there, helping to dig the road, not watching and saying how to do it. The EIC and the pupil learning credits have been wonderful models in that we have been given the money, we have been told what the objectives are, we have had some checking through NFER and evaluation of all that, but it has been light touch evaluation. We have been accountable for those outputs and to me that is the model of evaluation that we should pursue.

  Chairman: It has been a pure gem, this hour, so thank you very much. We have enjoyed it so much. If you have further thoughts we are very open to you dropping us a line or picking up the phone to tell us whatever you want. We will be going to Auckland to look at one city in October and we will compare the two cities and publish a report. Thank you very much.


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