Be proud of the civic service
Like other cities in Britain, Bristol has a split personality. To many, it seems an easy-going affluent place with a healthy tourist trade. But those of us who work in its public services see the other side. Much of the city is impoverished and has been by-passed by the economic recovery.
In the inner city and in the large housing estates on Bristol's fringes, at least half, and sometimes nearer 70 per cent, of the children in state schools were eligible for free meals last year.
Typically, 50-60 per cent of the houses are still owned by the local authority, and the percentage of owner-occupied properties is as low as 25 per cent. Between 40 and 50 per cent of the households receive council tax benefits. The child protection registration rate in somewards is exceeded only in a handful of London boroughs.
The challenges of teaching children in schools serving such communities have been well rehearsed. The Government insists it is giving them top priority. If state education is to succeed, it must succeed with all young people, irrespective of their social circumstances.
But if teachers and heads are to succeed, there needs to be a revolution in the way we talk publicly - and professionally - about the service. A few recent examples from Bristol are illustrative.
We had identified what was for us "one of the worst primary schools in the country" - in terms of the key stage 2 league tables. However, in media terms, the school came out quite well. There were many public statements of support from parents, and the chair of governors, who has put four of her own children through the school, and the head were entirely convincing in the local and national media. But despite the intense loyalty and support from their community, the publicity did nothing to encourage the teachers at the school.
Just down the road, a secondary school was identified as needing "special measures" - the public label which has been the accompaniment to public accountability. The Office for Standards in Education accurately reported that only 10 per cent of the Year 7 children entering at this school were performing "at or above the national average".
The follow-up from HM inspectors was professional and sympathetic, as always, but they were clear about the difficulties of providing successful schooling under these circumstances.
We had worked hard with this "special measures school", long before the OFSTED inspection. The best compliment we received was the comment made to me by one teacher to the effect that he and his colleagues "still felt able to teach", even after the public labelling.
Like my colleagues in other authorities serving schools in deprived areas, I have become weary of OFSTED reports beginning with such phrases as "Standards in English and maths overall are low compared with national standards" and reading on to find how good the "progress made" is, in order to determine whether the school gets "serious weaknesses" or, indeed, special measures.
One of the best heads I know, at whose school OFSTED inspectors could find hardly anything to criticise, remains profoundly depressed by such introductory comments as a result of the current framework for inspection. The ward in which her school is situated featured in the city planning officer's "poverty survey" for the first time in 1996.
If an organisation is to improve, effective external professional commentary has to combine constructive criticism with a recognition of that organisation's achievements. Otherwise, even justified criticism may be ignored. If education is to improve in our country, current achievement needs to be recognised. People need to feel good about what they are doing. We must begin to create a climate of success rather than failure.
Local authorities help with some of this. For example, we have issued value-added data this year in Bristol for key stage 1 tests, comparing them with assessments of the children on their entry to school. By next year, every school in the city will also have data from us to help set annual targets for improving children's levels of achievement on a much wider front than the areas required by statute.
But this is only a part of what needs to be done. That so many children do "travel the miles" is encouraging for the children, their parents and the schools. That the schools are also orderly places for learning, often havens in their communities, is similarly appreciated locally.
The best schools in Bristol, as elsewhere, continually attempt new approaches with children to help them gain confidence and thereby achieve more in real terms. Their effort is recognised in the community. But it is not well understood outside, no matter what we do.
These successes need wider recognition. We are not complacent about the standards achieved in Bristol schools. Nor do we believe that schools serving poorer communities must always achieve less, in absolute terms, than those in more favoured neighbourhoods. If students do not gain the entry requirements they need for their chosen college course, it is no help to them that their school has recently improved.
But if we are to create a climate of success in this country, we do need to start by recognising publicly the special qualities and skills that teachers in Bristol and other urban areas bring to making schools the special places they are.
"Over the hill", as local heads and governors sometimes disparagingly describe one of the more rural areas outside the city boundary, it is much easier to achieve test results above the national norms, and an orderly atmosphere. The schools are correspondingly valued publicly. Parents often assume that these schools are good and the urban ones are not. The achievements of schools in both communities need recognition.
How we do here, and in places with similar social conditions, over the next few years will be a verdict on us all - not just those of us who work in the city.
Richard Riddell is director of education for Bristol City Council