So sussex-ful

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Its schools chose to evolve, not devolve- and a winning partnership was born.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about West Sussex as an education authority is its record over opting out. Compared with other counties that were bitterly divided when Kenneth Baker gave schools the chance of grant-maintained independence back in 1988, here in the predominantly Conservative comfort of the Home Counties, where the idyllic South Downs dominate the central landscape, only one primary school chose to go it alone.

That's right - you read that correctly. Only one. Where Essex had 146 schools declaring UDI from county hall, Hertfordshire 41 and Kent 87 so that the issue still resonates in those areas two years after the system has ended, West Sussex schools had enough confidence in their immediate bosses to stick with the county.

Such loyalty and stability meant that back in June it received what is widely regarded as the most positive local authority Ofsted report since they started in 1999. At that time, the tenth largest LEA in the land also topped the national league tables. "In many respects, its work is outstanding," the inspectors enthused. "The LEA has few weaknesses and is addressing those it has."

This is Middle England at its best. But there's no smugness or self-satisfaction here. Last year, at GCSE 54 per cent of pupils gained five or more higher grades; this year, officers have set themselves a target of pushing that figure up to 65 per cent by 2002. Few authorities have achieved such heights.

It is as if they feel they have a duty to push the top end even higher for the sake of those working in areas that are not so well off.

"We are not complacent and appreciate the difficulties faced by those less generously resourced than ourselves," says Dick Bunker, the county's director of education. "We strive to achieve the best possible for our schools and are proud of our service."

One reason that schools might have stuck so steadfastly to the county is its predominantly rural nature - 60 of its primary schools have rolls of fewer than 120. The county stretches from Chichester on the south coast, along to just west of Brighton, then north through glorious countryside and attractive towns - Arundel, Petworth, Midhurst, Horsham - before reaching the grimmer realities of Crawley new town, which serves Gatwick Airport.

On a more practical level, schools' loyalty to the county might also have been influenced by the generous level of funding: since 1992 there has been a capital grant for each school. And on monies that have to be bid for, a panel of headteachers decides where the cash should go.

"When the grant-maintained system was introduced, we decided to out-Baker Baker," says Dick Bunker.

"We gave schools as much freedom as possible, but we also gave them support. We were ahead of Fair Funding (the system of devolving money to schools, introduced by Labour in 1999). We developed a strong culture of trust that has encouraged schools to stay with us."

Of course, the officers do not operate in isolation from the local politicians. For years, the chairman of education was Neil Matthewson, who has always argued that education is about more than exam results. The authority went comprehensive under Conservative local control in 1973 on the basis that such a system made sense in most small towns with only one local secondary school. But the introduction of intermediate and middle schools in some rural areas has created problems that Ofsted would like sorted out.

Matthewson's successor - after June's county council elections - is Sally Greenwell, who believes that one of the authority's strengths is its refusal to shut the door on people. She likes to encourage open debate and is a strong believer in consensus politics. She wants to restore the teacher's place in the community and thus improve morale. "Teachers are vital because they can unlock the door to a child's progress," she says.

To make sure that happens, there is another jewel in the West Sussex crown: its inspection and advisory service, which received high praise from Ofsted and gets wholehearted support from schools: 92 per cent of the funds delegated for such work is used to buy back services from the county.

The inspection and advisory service is led by Ken Pritchard, an affable Welshman with a steely determination to ensure that standards are pushed ever higher. He believes it is the authority's job to challenge schools constantly about their performance while offering them support and strategies to achieve the best.

"We are a learning authority, and we expect heads to adapt to new ideas," he says. "We take the pressure that heads are under into account, but they can't use these pressures as an excuse for not achieving. Those who say 'It can't be done' are being overtaken by those who are doing it."

One thing in West Sussex is certain: as soon as a school or head shows signs of faltering, the advisers and inspectors move in. As Ofsted observed, intervention is conducted in a way that supports and empowers headteachers. Heads generally feel enormously positive about the way things are working here.

"There is an openness and transparency in most of what's done," says Richard Evea, head of Angmering High school and chairman of the local secondary heads' association.

Overall, one senses that the heads feel emboldened and encouraged by Ofsted's plaudits just as much as county hall does. Mr Evea talks of his association taking a global view of the problems of all schools in the authority.

"We actually think West Sussex heads have got something to offer and we're going to work together," he says. "We want to be part of deciding what the decisions are going to be - this is the sort of authority we want to be, the sort of direction we want to go in."

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