North wind of change
St George's Hall in Bradford is one of the North's foremost concert venues, a grand Victorian building erected in an era when civic pride and confidence stamped an indelible mark on many of our industrial towns and cities. Recently, it hosted a remarkablecelebration of the achievements of the city's schoolchildren. More than 1,200 people were there to see them perform and to recognise the commitment of the teachers and adults who support them.
It was a wonderful evening in which the diversity and talents of Bradford's multi-cultural community were on display. But there was something else equally precious: a shared commitment to learning and a belief that, collectively, we can achieve great things.
Next week, local politicians and education officers from all over the country will converge on Warrington for the North of England education conference, by tradition one of most important get-togethers in the educational calendar. Now in its centenary year, the conference is rather like those fine old civic buildings built by our forefathers, a testimony to the enduring importance of local education services.
Yet until recently the very existence of such services was in doubt. After more than a decade of public concern about standards in state schools, there were many voices raised - including some in government - that questioned the need for local education authorities in their present form.
My own career as an education administrator has been shaped by this ongoing debate about the role LEAs can play in raising children's achievement. I have worked at a senior level in and with four northern LEAs. Two of them, Blackburn with Darwen and Kirklees, have recently received "excellent" performance grades in the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA), following very good Office for Standards in Education reports. The other two, Bradford - where I work now - and Leeds, were given poor Ofsted reports in 2000 and were obliged to seek help from the private sector. Having opted for radical, but different, solutions, both Bradford and Leeds are showing encouraging signs of progress and each achieved "good" ratings in the Audit Commission's assessment last month.
As someone who has moved from being director of education at a successful LEA, Blackburn with Darwen, to head the new public-private partnership to transform Bradford schools, I am convinced that what works in one context will not necessarily work in others. Just as successful schools adapt to the specific needs of their communities, modern LEAs cannot adopt one-size-fits-all solutions.
After years of uncertainty, the need for a local education service is now widely accepted. While some schools can be excellent in isolation, most welcome the opportunity to work with other supportive professionals, to improve collectively, and few schools need intensive outside help to be able to move forward. A good local education service can enable and support that process. In my experience that involves:
* doing things with schools rather than to schools;
* being bold, innovative and creative;
* actively encouraging self-managing but collaborative schools;
* focusing on learning, teaching and leadership;
* never forgetting that the learner comes first.
In Bradford, we are forging an effective partnership involving Serco - the company I now work for under the name of Education Bradford - the city council, the schools and the Education Policy Partnership - a stakeholder body with David Mallen as the independent chair. These are early days (one year into a 10-year contract) but the signs are encouraging - results are improving, confidence is growing and progress is being made on some longstanding problems.
We have ambitious aims for Bradford: to become one of the best-performing metropolitan districts; to raise achievement for all and at the same time narrow the gap for those currently under-performing groups and individuals.
Our strategy is to create a professional learning community using the skills and experience in the district's schools, communities, the city council and other partners as well as the expertise in Education Bradford and Serco Learning - the company's wider education business.
Working with our schools and partners we have encouraged some exciting new ideas. These include plans for five 14 to 19 "federations" of schools and colleges; multi-professional teams to provide better co-ordinated and targeted support to schools; a radical approach to special needs, with funding going to families and clusters of schools; and a local citizenship curriculum and school-twinning programme to address community cohesion.
There are encouraging signs that most in education have got over their fear of the private sector and recognise that, with a properly accountable and mature partnership, both sectors working together are more powerful than either acting alone.
However, there are no quick fixes and for all local services the agenda is about long-term sustainable transformation. This can only be achieved with a shared vision and partnership across the public, private and voluntary sectors.
As a southerner by birth, I have experienced a powerful sense of community and collaboration across the North of England. If we can capture and use that spirit, the North, cradle of the industrial revolution, could see the birth of another revolution - in education.
Mark Pattison is managing director of Education Bradford