A radical response to a crisis in Bristol may provide a model for other local authorities. Susannah Kirkman reports
There were high truancy and exclusion rates, failing schools, a crisis of confidence in councillors and two damning inspection reports. The education service in Bristol was at a low ebb.
That was two years ago. The city's radical response was to ask a group of outside experts and local educationists to help it transform the schools system by joining its newly formed Education Partnership Board.
Pat Banks, head of the city's Broomhill junior school and one of the board's headteacher representatives, says: "The partnership has provided the inspirational leadership we needed. Quick fixes used to be the order of the day, but we're now getting a steady, coherent approach from the councillors and the education authority."
The partnership was set up 18 months ago, following a report by the Office for Standards in Education in 2001 which censured councillors for failing to take crucial decisions and consult headteachers. As well as local heads and governors, the 22-member board includes Bristol councillors, church school representatives and education experts from other cities. Colin Hilton, director of education in Liverpool, is vice-chair of the board, which meets monthly.
Bristol hit the headlines two years ago, when councillors decided to hold a referendum on a council tax rise, leaving the education service facing severe budget cuts. The inspectors concluded that heads and education officers had lost confidence in the councillors.
One of the difficult issues they had ducked was the closure of schools with falling rolls. The number of surplus secondary places had been highlighted by an Ofsted report in 1999, which said that large numbers of able pupils were transferring to other LEAs or the independent sector at the age of 11.
The board has now helped the council to plan the closure of four under-subscribed schools.
"The partnership has an 'honest broker' role and stands apart from political structures," explains John Galpin, Bristol's director of education and lifelong learning. "With an issue like school closures, local political pressures are inevitable; you need to have steel to do it. But councillors can now say that outside experts recommend it and it helps to strengthen their resolve."
The fact that the board includes successful heads from Manchester and Birmingham gives it extra credibility. Bristol has far more in common with these cities than with south-western cities like Exeter, says Pat Banks.
Five wards in Bristol have among the highest deprivation rates in the country.
For Peter Hammond, the city's chair of education, the partnership has been a catalyst for change. "We're able to test what we're doing against outside expertise, and we now have better working methods," he says.
Relations between councillors, officers and schools have greatly improved.
The partnership is also helping councillors to press ahead with the transformation of the city's secondary schools, the top item on the council's agenda. Bristol has won Private Finance Initiative funding to rebuild eight of its 19 secondary schools.
But Professor Geoff Whitty, who is chair of the partnership and director of the University of London Institute of Education, counts the introduction of effective cross-party working in the council as one of the board's greatest achievements. He says: "Bristol now has an education service with a common purpose."