A model Labour authority;Spotlight On North Tyneside

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Maybe it was Geordie cussedness, maybe the close-knit Tyneside community, or maybe (whisper it soft) just common sense.

But when the Conservative Government introduced the marketplace to education with opt-outs, league tables and OFSTED inspections, the response from the schools and council chamber of North Tyneside was to do the opposite.

They rejected the ethos of competition to work closer than ever together - and in so doing created what could be a model for the new Labour Government as it seeks a greater role for councils in raising standards.

"The message we got loud and clear from schools is they don't want this cornershop mentality, this competition between schools and the idea that standards will only rise if people live in fear," says the executive director of North Tyneside Council, Les Walton.

"Standards will only rise through collaboration, co-operation and partnership."

It is not an original idea, but North Tyneside has been particularly effective in putting it into practice in the schools in and around North Shields, Whitley Bay and Wallsend.

And many of the paths the authority has blazed have found a place in Labour party policy, as well as attracting Tory interest before May 1.

Target-setting, baseline assessment, and action to tackle disaffection are all old hat on the northern banks of the Tyne.

Crucially, they were developed by schools and authority together, not imposed from above.

It is hardly surprising the borough should grab the spotlight in the early days of the new Labour administration.

David Blunkett's right-hand man is, after all, the borough's MP, Stephen Byers, himself a former North Tyneside Council deputy leader and chair of the Council of Local Education Authorities.

The authority has a long record of independent thinking and creativity which it hopes Mr Byers will take to the Department for Education and Employment.

Universal nursery provision was the norm long before the Tories dreamt up vouchers, and its child-care scheme is so successful it has won lucrative contracts with government agencies.

Both were set up to address the divisions in a community that had grown increasingly stark as the local economy spiralled into decline.

The borough brings together affluent suburbs and council estates such as Meadow Well - scene of riots in 1991 - where some children leave school having never known a member of their family in work.

The council's social funding formula also directs more cash than usual into schools with greatest need, based on free school meals numbers. That produces the odd grumble from those who miss out.

Headteachers are quick to praise the support they get from each other and the local education authority.

North Tyneside has no chief executive. It does not even have a chief education officer.

It is run by a flat tier of six "executive directors", one of whom - former high school headteacher Mr Walton - takes a lead in education but all of whom make joint decisions.

Below them are the heads of service, answerable to some or all of the directors.

It is a system that means, as one puts it, "you're never more than 15 minutes from your next meeting". But it ensures a degree of collaboration and co-ordination unusual in local government.

So when the executive director responsible for development oversees a bid for government regeneration funds, it is done with educational concerns grafted in.

School services, children's services and community services work particularly closely together. The latter two play key roles in promoting children's literacy through child-care and adult education schemes for parents.

This arrangement was agreed by the Labour leadership five years ago in the face of the continuing assault on local government finance. North Tyneside receives one of the lowest grant settlements of any metropolitan authority.

It decided the only option was to become leaner, more flexible, better organised and more responsive. The reward was high praise from the Audit Commission for providing excellent value for money.

Education chairwoman Janet Hunter said: "Since local management of schools, we have had to offer something that schools want.

"By working in partnership with schools, and schools working with each other, we provide a very strong base for raising standards."

Praise is not universal. Brian Rickwood, head of the one grant-maintained school, Wellfield Middle in Whitley Bay, enjoys amicable relations with the council but says it tends towards centralisation and dictat.

"I was surprised at how many services they still provide compared to my old authority, Somerset," he said. "I think they accept it's something they can't maintain. But they will have to learn new behaviour."

The authority would point to its education forum which brings together teachers, governors, parents, councillors, officers, manual staff, the education business partnership - anyone with an interest in education. Around 50 people attend regularly.

And for a small authority, North Tyneside runs an impressive number of new pilot initiatives - or action research as Mr Walton calls it.

"We see the local authority as the research and development wing of society," he says.

Each of its 10 "pyramids", or clusters of schools, is running one pilot or another, from literacy and numeracy to baseline assessment to school self-assessment.

Some are developing information technology networks between schools and pupil referral units while one cluster has seen a multi-agency unit set up of educational psychologists, welfare workers and special needs officers. A PRU based within a school is being tested.

Pinning the whole thing together are two key documents: the council's strategic plan, and a "tool-kit" for school improvement, produced by a team of inspectors and headteachers. The headteachers outnumber the inspectors by 10 to four.

The strategic plan - which is target-driven and was put together after painstaking consultation - encapsulates the council's goal of creating a "learning community".

To achieve that, it insists, schools and the authority must constantly re-evaluate their work to do better.

The "tool-kit" is a way of doing that. It is a detailed self-evaluation programme that headteachers can use to make their schools more effective. Again, it is target-led.

Mr Walton is a happy man. He knows North Tyneside could do better, but he also believes it will do better, thanks in no small part - although he is loathe to utter such a crass platitude - to the Geordie sense of community.

"I'm not a theorist, but I think education and knowledge are the new capital," he says. "In the past, it was coal and iron and ships. The sense of community came from that identity with what we produced.

"If knowledge is replacing iron and steel, our community is going to respond to that in exactly the same way."

North Tyneside Council

Control: Labour

Structure: mixture of primarysecondary and firstmiddlehigh Number of primarymiddle schools: 68 Number of secondaryhigh schools: 11 Number of special schools: five Number of grant-maintained schools: 1 middle Education budget: pound;73.2 million Standard spending assessment: pound;67.8 million Delegation to schools: 92 per cent Key Stage 2 league table position: 29th GCSE league table position: 60th (out of 118 English Leas) Pupils leaving with five 5 GCSEs A*-C: 41.1 per cent Pupils continuing to further education: 63 per cent Population: 192,000 Unemployment: 8.3 per cent Owneroccupier households: 60 per cent Children in lone-parent families: 16 per cent Children in no-earner families: 19 per cent Children with free schools meals: 23 per cent Children with statements of special need: 3.23 per cent Ethnic minorities: 1.08 per cent

Marine Park First School, Whitley Bay: schools have worked with the local authority to set targets and to introduce baseline assessment and measures to tackle disaffection

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