All eyes still on policy test bed

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse's Birmingham revolution will either surge ahead or expire, said Professor Ted Wragg in a 1995 progress report on the city's high-profile campaign to turn round its struggling education system.

The man in charge of Birmingham's campaign has certainly surged ahead. Professor Brighouse, the director of its education service, has just been appointed joint vice-chairman of the Government's standards task force. He has already helped influence Labour thinking with his advocacy of motivational schemes like target-setting and literacy summer schools.

But as to whether Birmingham will sink or swim under his stewardship, whether it will "crack the problems of urban deprivation", as Professor Wragg put it, the jury is still out. Whatever the outcome, it will take place amid intense public scrutiny, with a team of OFSTED inspectors due to give it an MOT in the near future.

City-wide, GCSE results appear to be improving. But close examination shows a mixed bag. A report to the city council last November showed a steady rise in the number of pupils achieving five or more passes, standing at 80 per cent last year.

In fact it also shows that the improvement has been steady, year by year since as far back as 1988 - before Mr Brighouse was appointed - with rises since 1994 roughly in line with previous annual increases of between 1 and 3 per cent.

The proportion getting five or more of the top GCSE grades has risen from 30.4 per cent in 1994 to 32.9 per cent today - against a national average of 44.5 per cent.

But against that, the percentage of pupils leaving school with no GCSEs has remained more or less static at 13 per cent with a slight dip to 12 per cent last year.

Charles Bell, a tireless researcher into examination statistics, has produced figures showing that, by working out the average GCSE point score for every pupil in Birmingham, overall results have improved only slightly more than the average improvement achieved by all schools nationally in the past four years.

The city's ranking among all local authorities went up only one place from 85th to 84th between 1992 and 1996. About half of all other authorities he says have made bigger improvements than Birmingham.

Professor Brighouse is undismayed by such claims and takes a characteristically positive view. "We've only just started," he says. "We're moving marginally faster than the national average. We have fewer primary schools failing than the national average. If there are authorities that are improving faster than us, we will want to go and see what we can learn.

Birmingham is seen as something of a model for a co-operative, enlightened approach to education. It has thus become more than just a city trying to shake up its schools. It will increasingly be seen as a test bed for the Government's education policies.

A torrent of groundbreaking initiatives has flooded into Birmingham's schools since Professor Brighouse started there, following a change in the city council's Labour leadership.

Parents have been given a series of "guarantees", promising improvement targets for their children's schools. Birmingham pioneered "baseline assessment" of five-year-olds. It started the University of the First Age to improve children's school performance - attended by 400 youngsters last summer and expecting twice asmany this year. There is the Children's University, a thriving system of Saturday schools. There is a highly developed, city-wide database on children's achievement in the schools. There is "networking" between schools and parents. There are professional development and management programmes for teachers, ambitious targets for improving results by the year 2000 and "learning city" conferences.

This year is the Year of Numeracy, next year will be Year of the Arts, followed by science and technology and the environment.

Professor Brighouse sees himself as an enabler. Most of his ideas have come from others. "All I did was unlock doors. There was a kind of French resistance in Birmingham. All you had to do was let them out and they realised they could talk to each other and they had energy and ideas and things started to happen."

Grove Primary School, in the Handsworth area of the city, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain, is a powerhouse of new ideas. Headteacher David Winkley speaks of a fundamental change of atmosphere in the city's schools since Professor Brighouse's arrival. "The management style at the centre flows down to schools and their staff," he says. "There's a cultural change that then affects relationships with children. Tim Brighouse is good at identifying creative forces in the profession and giving them free rein. "

Grove school boasts probably the most advanced computerised system of assessment in the country. It has a "fast-track" system for exceptionally bright children. Every year a handful of its top-year pupils pass GCSE maths.

But Dr Winkley accepts that there has been some resistance to the changes. Some teachers have had to be persuaded that rigorous collection of assessment data is worthwhile. And he accepts that results at his school are only gradually improving. "We're not going to see dramatic changes year on year. We will see growth over time."

Many teachers, on whom the long-term success of the school's revolution must depend, remain sceptical, meanwhile complaining of "initiative overload".

In the words of Chris Keates, Birmingham secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers: "There's no way of knowing whether all these wonderful initiatives have done any good, because there has been no structured evaluation." Perhaps Mr Woodhead's inspectors will supply the answers.

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