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Long read: How two decades of Whitehall wheezes and Ofsted condemnation failed Bradford’s 'failing' schools

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It was more than 15 years ago that I walked, bleary-eyed, into a central London press briefing to hear an outspoken Ofsted chief inspector demand drastic action to counter the “miserable failure” in Bradford’s schools system.

Back then, I was a young(ish) education reporter on the city’s Telegraph and Argus newspaper down on the first morning train from West Yorkshire. And it was the late, yet to be knighted, Chris Woodhead who was castigating Bradford’s education leaders for their “negligence, incompetence and self-obsession” in the full glare of the national media

This week, history repeated itself as Ofsted’s latest chief inspector, the similarly vociferous Sir Michael Wilshaw, tore into the city for its underperformance at both primary and secondary level, with schools that remained “mired in mediocrity”. 

He blamed said the situation - “so bad that a commission of enquiry should be set up to investigate the problem” – on a lack of political leadership and a local authority “slow to drive improvement”. “Bradford needs its own [schools] commissioner,” Sir Michael concluded.  

Strikingly, his predecessor’s diagnosis was virtually identical. In 2000, as I sat down to interview Woodhead immediately after Ofsted’s stinging attack on Bradford’s “poverty of aspirations” in one of its most critical reports yet, he told me that he had been “shocked by the failure of leadership” in the authority.

A decade-and-a-half later, here we are again. You well might ask, as Sir Michael did on Tuesday: “What on earth have the political leaders been doing over the years in this major city?”

The answer, actually, is quite a lot. No one could accuse Bradford Council of inaction in its response to Ofsted’s verdict on its education services in 2000.

Other local authorities also came in for heavy criticism in the damning batch of reports released by Woodhead on that day in May. And some fought hard against the central government intervention that followed, designed to hand their management of local schools over to private companies.

But not Bradford Council. When Ofsted declared that the authority did not have the “capability” to address its failings in education, the attitude of most councillors and officers was one of contrition and cooperation.

The then Labour schools minister Estelle Morris immediately stated that most of Bradford’s local education authority functions would have to be taken out of its control and what remains the biggest education privatisation in British history was set in motion.

The result was a fiendishly complicated structure that saw Serco – a company then best known for running the Docklands Light Railway – win the £360m 10-year contract to run Bradford's schools, operating under the scrutiny of a kind of shadow council education team.

"Education Bradford", as the new privatised organisation was known, was set up in a refurbished corporate HQ away from City Hall and the number of highly paid managers working in Bradford education multiplied overnight.

But there was certainly “no poverty of aspirations” at Serco. I vividly remember interviewing an executive the company brought in to oversee the start of the contract in 2001. He told me with a straight face that Bradford would now leap up 81 places on the national GCSE league table of 150 local education authorities and rank alongside the national average.

Was he really sure about that, I asked. That didn’t just mean producing better GCSE results, it meant improving at a faster rate than the scores of other areas authorities stacked above Bradford in the league table – authorities that would all be trying to do the same thing, usually with much more in their favour.  

It would mean climbing above shire counties like Devon and affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea. Did he honestly believe that was possible?        

Yes, he was sure, he said. Not only that, but Bradford would achieve this educational miracle in double quick time. Not by 2011 when the contract was due to end – but in just five years.

I left gobsmacked by what I felt was an almost insulting lack of recognition of the reality of the problems faced by my adopted home city. The root of my incredulity back then can be easily understood by a glance at any of the national GCSE league tables produced in the last couple of decades.

What you will see is ostensibly a measure of educational achievement, but it could just as well be a league table of economic deprivation. Permanent residents in the basement include poverty afflicted areas like Knowsley, Blackpool, Stoke and Barnsley.

Also down at the bottom are the small authorities covering working class cities like Nottingham, Leicester and Hull – closely bounded by “doughnuts” of more affluent rural areas with “better” schools where more middle class residents send their children, leaving the inner city secondaries to deal with the rest.

And, year in year out, you will find Bradford down at the bottom, a proud Yorkshire city that has yet to recover from the virtual extinction of its once world renowned woollen industry, that began its steep economic decline decades ago.   

Sir Michael made it clear on Tuesday that he did not regard deprivation as an acceptable explanation for such low achievement

“Nowhere is it ordained that because these children are poor the education they receive is bound to be less than good,” he declared.

He pointed to the “alarming fact” that “educational success and failure aren’t spread evenly across the country”. Ofsted has judged 79 per cent of secondaries in the south to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ compared to 68 per cent of those in the north and the midlands.

But – given the fact that Ofsted inspection verdicts are so closely linked to unadjusted exam results and the compelling evidence that it is pupil background that is the biggest factor contributing to differences between schools’ results – isn’t that exactly what you would expect to happen?

Indeed, wouldn’t it be much more “alarming” if that relatively small discrepancy between schools in the north and the relatively prosperous south was the other way round?

Sir Michael’s argument is that Ofsted judgements on primary schools – with 84 per cent of judged good or outstanding in the North and midlands, compared with 85 per cent in the South – prove that there is no need for this divide to exist at all.

Whether that disproves the idea that poverty that lies behind the north south divide at secondary level, or just that it takes several years for the full impact of deprivation and a lack of aspiration to feed through to pupils’ results, is open to question.

But Bradford, Ofsted’s chief inspector argued, cannot even get education for the under-11s right. “Both its primary and secondary schools underperform,” Sir Michael said yesterday. And, in the sense that the situation is the same as it was in 2001, he is correct.

Serco’s drive to propel Bradford up the league table, needless to say, failed. The city never got anywhere near the GCSE national average in 2005, 2010 or 2015 and remains significantly below the national average for primary test results as well.

Indeed Serco missed so many of its targets – which came with financial bonuses attached – that it was allowed to renegotiate them twice in the first four years of its Bradford contract. The fact that the company ended up arguing that they were unrealistic and would not give it a proper incentive to succeed would be hilarious were it not so depressingly predictable.

But in truth the privatisation – which ended in 2011, when management of Bradford education reverted back to the council – did no worse than any of the numerous other central government schemes that have attempted to “drive up standards” in the city over the years.

Fresh Start, free schools, Excellence in Cities, academies, Education Action Zones, faith school takeovers: the West Yorkshire city has had them all. Bradford has effectively spent the last two decades as a living laboratory for education wheezes from Whitehall, with very little return.

This week Sir Michael effectively declared them all failures, concluding that Bradford’s schools are still “failing generation after generation with depressing regularity”, with the authority “languishing” in the bottom ten places in the national league table for both primary and secondary.

Of course, those table positions are not based on absolute achievement, but on Bradford’s results relative to other areas.

So, once again, the city is being expected not just to get better results, but to outpace the improvements in other more advantaged authorities. And again, it could be argued that this expectation is unrealistic and setting Bradford up for more dispiriting failure.

However, on Tuesday, Sir Michael produced a trump card to counter that argument: London. “Bradford’s social composition and challenges aren’t that different to London’s East End, which in the main performs very well,” the Ofsted chief inspector said.

And there is no doubt that the remarkable improvement in the capital’s school results has been one of the big education stories of the last decade. Probably the most convincing analysis of what lies behind that success, suggests it can be explained by the high proportion of ethnic minority pupils in London.    

And ethnic minority pupils are one thing that Bradford does not lack. So why are they not driving Bradford to the educational success that they have done in London and Birmingham?

Some point to the fact that a large percentage of Bradford’s immigrants originally came from Mirpur, one of Pakistan’s least developed regions. They are not the Indian or Chinese pupils traditionally seen as the highest academically achieving ethnic groups in the UK.

But then how does that argument account for the success of Bangladeshi pupils in Tower Hamlets – an East London borough that could give Bradford a good run for its money in the poverty stakes but is comfortably in the top third of the GCSE league table?

You might consider the fact that Bradford schools currently receive £4838 per pupil in government funding, compared to £5211 in Birmingham and a whopping £7007 in Tower Hamlets. You might also consider whether the wealth on display in the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf and the City of London is likely to encourage more aspiration and ambition among the pupils that live near them than the derelict crumbling textile mills of Bradford.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny Sir Michael’s point that the success of schools in poorer areas of London raise some potentially uncomfortable questions for education in Bradford.

But what can be done about them? The answer, for Ofsted’s current chief inspector – like Chris Woodhead before him – is rooted in local political leadership. “Local politicians must be as determined to encourage schools to do better as they are to lobby for fast trains or new motorways,” Sir Michael said on Tuesday.

For some it might seem strange to hear such an avid supporter of school “freedom” from local authority control, claim that it is local councillors that should hold the key to success in schools.  

And it might seem a little rich to blame a local authority for failure in schools that it has less and less direct control over. Bradford knows all about school autonomy. The city has had more than its fair share of academy takeovers – and failures. It is also well aware that free schools are no silver bullet, with Bradford the scene of one of the programme’s most embarrassing fiascos.    

But then, as Sir Michael also noted this week, school autonomy on its own does not automatically lead to success. “Academies, like all schools, work if they have good leaders and good teaching,” he said. “If they lack them, they do not.”

So, is that the reason for Bradford’s comparatively poor exam results – being incredibly unlucky in its recruitment of headteachers? Or is it poor political leadership, poverty, economic failure or lack of funding? Whatever the answer is, it is not a simple one.   

But if Bradford ever does get the education commissioner that Sir Michael thinks it needs, then they will need to understand the city in order to make a difference. They will need to understand its problems, its history, its pride, and its potential. Because off-the-shelf solutions dreamt up in a distant London office will not work. That is the one thing we do know.

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