Statistician with a human face

He used a database of performance figures to turn a school round. Now he's trying the same approach on an LEA. But, at heart, Peter Fletcher believes you succeed in education by engaging the people. He explains how to Sue Jones

For generations pupils have got used to heads' objecting to their appearance: hair too long, skirt too short, trainers. But in Peter Fletcher's school they were hauled up over their performance data.

"He's here with one of his funny graphs," they'd say. On paper was the evidence that they weren't working hard enough, and they would be challenged.

While head of Easingwold School in North Yorkshire from 1993 to 2000, he raised top-grade GCSEs from 48 to 72 per cent using his system of pupil tracking. But this was about more than number crunching. This was statistics with a personal touch. And interviews were just as important. There were 1,300 students in the school, but they could expect to be accosted by name at any time.

"They knew I was interested in them. You've got to make the personal impact. You can't quantify it. We got kids to do it themselves and they drove the staff." He left Easingwold in 2000 to join the Ofsted team inspecting local authorities.

Last October he was head- hunted by PricewaterhouseCooper to become Hull's director of learning services and work the same magic in an authority at the bottom of the league tables. Results are improving, but it has yet to crack 30 per cent for GCSE passes, although they have risen from 23 per cent in 1996 to 28.8 per cent this year.

A story from his interview gives you a flavour of a man who is an insider, who knows what Whitehall wants and is not daunted that Ofsted is crawling all over his authority this month for its second inspection. Last time, in 1999, it was given a very positive report despite obvious worries about exams.

Called to give a presentation on school improvement to the city's councillors, Fletcher's reply was that they had asked him the wrong question. "What you should be asking me is why your city is going to be hauled over the coals by the Audit Commission for failing corporate governance."

His prediction came true this July. And his nerve and his reputation for getting results landed him the job. Ten months later, he believes Hull has first-rate staff and a wealth of good practice. Many schools provide "havens of stability" for troubled children, but he does not underestimate the challenge of leading education in the city.

"Hull people are genuine and friendly, but there's the feeling that you're at the end of the M62 and at the edge of the economy. Three generations of unemployment is difficult to break down."

He wants to build a more modern relationship with schools, which will support and challenge, rather than direct. "I don't have the power to enter any school unless there's dire questions of, say, probity or health and safety."

His team depends for its existence on selling expertise to schools, a system he experienced as chief adviser for Lincolnshire when it was pushing schools to go grant maintained. This, he believes, concentrates officers'

minds on giving "best value".

While schools are less dependent on the local authority, they cannot do as they please. Mr Fletcher thinks there is a danger that autonomy will be confused with independence, but schools are accountable for what they do to raise standards.

He believes data is vital in raising achievement; the huge amounts on pupil achievement held by the LEA can be used to get away from a blanket approach and target support where it is needed. Schools in Hull are now categorised into five bands, from those doing well to those in special measures. The greatest resources are available for those with most problems.

"Performance management is critical because schools need mechanisms to be autonomous. Unless we judge ourselves, we cannot improve," he says.

As an inspector he has seen good and bad practice in many authorities, a bonus for this job. He wouldn't want to offer schools a rigid model, but sees the Ofsted self-inspection framework as a useful self-assessment tool.

Attainment is not just down to teachers, but involves the wider community too. Schools, he says, are just one corner of a triangle, with parents and peer groups.

He recalls an Easingwold girl with a special needs statement who, with help from her school, social services and her parents, got to Sunderland University.

But Ofsted has noted that many parents stay clear of the schools. At one stage, local supermarket Safeway announced parents' evenings over its tannoy, but it had little effect.

He welcomes any initiative that will build up home-school contacts. At Fordykes primary, parents have been encouraged to become classroom assistants and trained towards national vocational qualifications. Mr Fletcher says this has a multiplier effect in raising support for education in the local community.

The City's adult and community education programme offers a range of classes, making use of primary schools and staff.

"Schools have a responsibility to the city," he says. "Schools are fundamental to regeneration. We've got to raise the skills level of the whole population and attract inward investment."

It may be no accident that the education office is over the Job Centre. With unemployment running at twice the national average, education is crucial to economic survival.

The Hull Learning Partnership - between the LEA, the local learning and skills council, Hull University and the voluntary sector - is also rethinking its key stages 4 and 5 options in the light of the government's 14-19 strategy and Ofsted's call for a more coherent strategy across Hull in its most recent 16-19 area report. Mr Fletcher wants to break down some of the academic and vocational barriers and enable people to create pathways through rather than natural breaks at the end of key stages. Individual learners must have an entitlement to find a route that enables them to combine the courses and subjects they need and helps to get adults re-engaged as learners.

Hull's regeneration is vital to school standards. Young people and their parents need to see job opportunities that are worth getting an education and training for. And Peter Fletcher wants an imaginative development of the waterfront, with housing that will attract people to live in the city centre, as in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

But his immediate concerns are national test and exam results. "I've got an enigma with all this - people are working so hard and standards are not going up fast enough. It's a community-wide thing and everybody's got to be involved."

THE FLETCHER FILE

1948 Born 1970 Graduates from Leeds in economics 1971 teaching certificate, teaches economics in York 1976 moves to Lincolnshire, becomes deputy head; seconded into a pilot for the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative 1989 Chief inspector for Lincolnshire 1993 Head of Easingwold school, North Yorkshire 1998 OBE for services to education 2000 Joins HMI inspecting LEAs 2001(December) Appointed director of learning services for Hull city council Interests Plays church organ, scale model railway building, walking and photography

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