Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Cabinet Member for Education and Lifelong Learning and the Chief Education Officer (EB06)

  1.  We are assuming that the Members of the Select Committee will have familiarised themselves with two documents in the briefing pack, in particular the self-assessment written prior to the latest OFSTED/Audit Commission inspection of the LEA and the OFSTED/Audit final report on the LEA itself.

  2.  Additional useful background, also in the pack, includes:

    —  the first report of the Chief Education Officer to the Education Committee in September 1993;

    —  the two Wragg Reports of 1993 and 1995;

    —  the Independent Commission into the future of Secondary Education in the City of Birmingham chaired by Sukvinder Stubbs in 1998.

  3.  Finally, the pack includes a draft of a paper the Chief Education Officer has been asked to deliver in London on 28 September[1]. As you can see, this deals extensively with the vexed question of secondary education in major conurbations. We shall be happy to answer questions on the ideas in the paper but for obvious reasons we are not anxious for media attention before the day of presenting the paper itself.


  4.  Our understanding is that the Select Committee's area of interest is urban education with a particular emphasis on secondary schooling.

  5.  It might be assumed, therefore, that nothing further needs to be added in written evidence. Yet there is. We want to make seven points beyond those outlined in this document.

  5.1  The first relates to complexity and how each factor bears on another in large urban areas.

    —  the 28 September paper concludes that at least ten interrelating factors will have to be addressed simultaneously, and not in a mutually exclusive way, if the chronic and acute problems of secondary education are to be overcome. These interrelating issues have not been addressed coherently in government thinking;

    —  housing renewal policies and practices also impinge on schooling. (In Birmingham the example of Castle Vale is salutary in that respect.);

    —  neighbourhood renewal impacts on schooling and vice versa;

    —  accessible local jobs with many small steps on the lower rungs of the employment ladder have a beneficial impact on climate, especially if those jobs are seen to be provided in the services such as health and education which can combine further training with the self-respect and hope that a job provides;

    —  finally, health and policing policies and practices can have a profound impact on the environment in which school staff and pupils can do their jobs.

  5.2  The second point relates to adolescence. It has always been a difficult time. Shakespeare (A Winter's Tale, Act III, Scene 3) refers to it in the following terms:

    "I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting . . .".

    Nowadays, adolescence starts earlier, especially for girls, and ends later as the transition into adulthood becomes much longer. Many adolescents have very volatile self-esteem: they experiment and take risks. To confuse the teacher's efforts to help them learn they have a shame (arising from peer group pressure) of being seen to be a beginner—they need to be instant experts. In large conurbations the anonymity of neighbourhoods increases the risks facing adolescents—as does the fact that conurbations are places to which those fleeing from "authority" gravitate.

    In short, adolescents have never faced more challenge in making transition from childhood to adulthood: and nowhere is it more difficult to navigate than in the inner-city and the outer-ring estates. It is absolutely essential that each youngster has a worthwhile relationship with at least one adult whom they trust—and that they feel special.

  5.3  The third concerns access. Access not ownership is of key importance. So the great royal parks (St James', Regent's), the public squares and many other places are a delight in urban areas. There are other factors of "common wealth"—the theatres, the convention centres, the great sports stadia, the universities, the great libraries and museums—which are all to be found disproportionately in urban areas. Access to them and the talented people who work in the conurbations is a key issue for counter-balancing the challenges which disadvantaged youngsters face. We have only scratched the surface in terms of access. But there are other aspects to access—not least to a good secondary education. That is where the 28 September paper seeks to resolve some apparently irreconcilable pressures.

  5.4  The fourth relates to what comes before and what follows secondary schooling. Birmingham's "Flying Start" programme, run by pre-school workers chosen for their qualities not qualifications, seems to us a much better and more rapid way of achieving what the national "Sure Start" programme is seeking to do. Nevertheless, the present government's investment in birth to five services is certain to pay off over a couple of generations. Primary schooling—particularly the quality of staffing—has never been better. What we must do is achieve far better primary to secondary transition.

  So far as what follows secondary education is concerned, the collegiate which we advocate would have the capacity (which some schools have not) to work with colleges in providing safer pathways with the help of the Connexions Service to access either full-time education and training, or jobs with training. Transition at 16 at present is only marginally less dangerous to vulnerable individual students than it is at 11.

  5.5  The fifth issue concerns parents. In Birmingham, until recently, we have been poor in forging close links with parents, despite it being one of the declared seven processes of school improvement. In the last three or four years we have made significant progress through the promotion of the INSPIRE programme, which seems to work in every primary school where it has been tried. It is simple in design and involves teachers, pupils and parents in worthwhile workshops. Over 250 primary schools have now been involved. Something similar is needed in secondary schools.

  5.6  Sixthly, interdisciplinary working among staff of different agencies is also a matter which impinges most on the most vulnerable. Very few, if any, protocols exist for translating partnership planning into partnership working on the ground. So, for example, job descriptions created by one professional silo do not generally include duties and responsibilities relating to another, with the outcome that the most vulnerable get the worst service. There are many other factors (eg case conference dates, shared data, shared targets, shared premises, rooms for other professionals) that need to be co-ordinated, synchronised and synthesised.

  5.7  Finally, there are viruses in the system which get in the way of young people succeeding. Housing allocation; admission criterion; league tables; assessments which are summative and informative to other audiences—rather than formative and diagnostic—are all examples of potential systemic viruses that can militate against success for everyone, especially the most challenged youngsters.

  6.  We should like to make three final points in conclusion. The first concerns the extent to which we understand issues affecting race, nationality and religion—and the importance of making rapid progress on all of these.[2]

  Secondly, we cannot emphasise too strongly the disproportionate need in cities for energy, skill, commitment and optimism among staff, especially teachers. In Birmingham we are fond of saying we are a "can-do" city. This arises from an energy that brooks no denial. In a sense the story of inner-city education is a battle between the energy creators and the energy consumers, between people who see the glass as half full and those who see it as half empty, between the silver linings and the clouds, between the "How we coulds" and the "Why we can'ts". If we are making any progress in Birmingham that is exceptional, it is because the first group are winning and the second group are losing. That battle is as important today and tomorrow as it was yesterday and the day before.

  Finally, there is a point to be made about the democratic local input. We have strived for courageous and generous leadership—at officer level and, vitally, from the city politically, without which nothing could have been accomplished. The City Council has been steadfast in priority and properly challenging. By that we mean it has set policy and not confused it with management. The democratic local process brings the "bright light of ordinariness" to all our proceedings.

Councillor Roy Pinney
Cabinet Member for
Education & Lifelong Learning

Professor Tim Brighouse
Chief Education Officer

September 2002



(Speech by the Chief Education Officer to representatives of the Muslim Community of Birmingham—Summer 2002.)


1   Not printed. Back

2   "When I arrived in Birmingham in 1993 I knew a lot about school improvement, teaching, learning and, to some degree, the way local education authorities could be made to work effectively. I knew far too little about issues affecting race, nationality and religion. I took too long to be sufficiently confident in these matters-to achieve a platform of sufficient learning from which to have the confidence to publicly speculate and learn more. In consequence, we have made nowhere near the progress in closing the gap for underachieving groups and in opening ourselves up to the views of different communities. I believe now we are on the right track, but it is one we should have found more rapidly." Back

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