Private help not required

18th February 2000 at 00:00
George Gyte and Kathryn Riley explain how Greenwich has turned

round its education service

THE Government's message to local education authorities is clear: sort out your services to schools, or suffer the consequences.

The consequences, as The TES reported in its recent privatisation special, are likely to mean services which are not up to scratch being handed over to private sector management. As that report and its accompanying survey noted, a substantial minority of schools are unhappy with the services they currently receive. But does the answer necessarily lie with private companies?

The Greenwich experience suggests otherwise. In 1997, Greenwich LEA was badly adrift. Its national tests and GCSE results were poor. A number of schools were put on special measures, sending shock waves through the borough. Relationships between schools and the council were at rock bottom. A survey carried out by the Roehampton Institute in May 1998 found that only 1 in 5 thought the authority was performing well.

Things are changing. Greenwich schools have made some of the greatest gains in national test results. There is a new partnership between schools and the council, and a shared agreement about the agenda for change. The education department has some notable achievements under its belt, including a revitalised inspection and advisory service which has worked successfully with struggling schools to take them out of special measures. Greenwich has been successful in gaining funding for key ventures: education action zone, Sure Start, Excellence in Cities.

In June 1999, a follow-up Roehampton survey found that 1 in 2 now thought the authority was performing well, and 8 out of 10 that performance had improved. In January 2000, the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission concluded that "schools are now confident that the LEA will deliver more efficient and effective support. (however) the challenges facing the LEA are considerable".

Their analysis was correct. We're on the right path - just. There are still major problems to be tackled, particularly about special educational needs (SEN), pupil achievement and the organisation of post-16 provision.

We've learned a number of difficult lessons along the way. The first is to be honest about the problems. This is painful. In our discussions with schools, we acknowledged our mistakes and weaknesses as an LEA, but we were also clear about the ways in which schools also needed to change.

As well as the Roehampton survey, we got other external perspectives on our work. The National Children's Bureau reviewed SEN isues, pulling no punches in its report to us. The District Audit Office undertook extra surveys in a number of areas, including finance.

We also learned that you need a corporate strategy. The changes in Greenwich have come about through corporate will and corporate action. In 1997, the nadir point for the LEA, the department was put into special measures. The chief executive, supported by the leader of the council, took a very hands-on approach.

The financial management of the education service was transferred to the borough treasurer's department. Senior council staff took part in an administrative review of education. A member of the chief executive's team was seconded to education to oversee some of the structural changes. There were major staffing changes at all levels of the department.

There was strong political support, reflected in additional funding and through the active involvement of key councillors in maintaining and reviewing their service, clarifying priorities and talking to heads, governors and the broader education community about what needed to be done, and how.

We learned that you need to be clear about the message. Despite the turmoil of 1997-1998, we set a goal: all young people have the right to a challenging and fulfilling education. In September 1998, we launched the Greenwich Partnership for Achievement at a conference which included councillors, governors, staff, parents, community representatives and pupils.

We also learned to be clear about the mechanisms needed to make change a reality, as well as the timescale. This has meant defining what needs to be done quickly, as well as recognising what will take time. Changes take place because there is a will to change, because there are aspirations about how things can be different and because there are processes and strategies in place to make things happen.

There is something of the cult of the "hero leader" in education at the moment but in Greenwich the changes are not down to one person. There has been leadership, but from a number of sources: from within the education department, from across the council, from councillors and from schools (headteachers and governors).

The Greenwich experience demonstrates that while there are no miracle cures, an "ailing" LEA can be turned around, without contracting out its services to the private sector.

George Gyte has been director of education in Greenwich since 1998. Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the Centre for Educational Management, University of Surrey, Roehampton, and has acted as an education adviser to Greenwich since 1997.

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