When a narrow stretch of water is an educational gulf
The county with the worst schools in England is not one of the poorest. It has no deprived inner-city areas; in fact, it doesn't have any cities at all. There are no major problems with crime. According to most measures of deprivation, it appears to be a classic example of Middle England.
Indeed, its young people are polite, smartly turned-out and well behaved, according to their teachers. And the quality of life is hard to beat: despite being just 75 miles from London, students are able to relax on the beach after school.
Welcome to the Isle of Wight, a place that conjures up images of gleaming yachts, pristine beaches and a world-famous music festival. As Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of England's schools inspectorate Ofsted, has pointed out, this is a place that "you would not normally associate with underperformance".
But perhaps the revelation should not come as such a surprise. Politicians have long focused on stamping out underachievement in inner-city areas, but the plight of coastal communities is becoming increasingly high-profile. In 2012, former shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg spoke out about the "arc of underachievement" in coastal schools, linked to the resorts' seasonal, low-wage economies and transient populations. Since then, the issue has been taken up by numerous politicians, charities and education figures.
In many ways, the Isle of Wight represents a microcosm of the issues facing Britain's coastal regions - a bubble in the Solent where such difficulties are magnified. But the island's school system has also been beset by its own unique problems.
The good news is that, thanks to internal and external expertise, schools are battling back. And if these efforts prove successful, they could offer hope to other coastal schools struggling with similar issues.
Looking at the data, it's hard to disagree with Wilshaw's assertion that children attending the island's schools could consider themselves "unlucky". In Ofsted's most recent annual report (bit.ly2013-14Ofsted), the Isle of Wight was ranked as the worst local authority in England for secondary provision. Just 17 per cent of its students attended a school rated good or outstanding - less than half the proportion in the next weakest areas, Hartlepool and St Helens (35 per cent). In 2012, GCSE results were 15 percentage points below the national average.
Attendance figures for the island's schools were even worse, according to Lynda Evans, headteacher of Hunnyhill Primary School in Newport. "They weren't just the worst in the country - we were cast adrift," she says. "We were right off the scale. It was appalling."
All at sea
At the heart of the problem lie issues familiar to many coastal regions. Eric Jackson, interim executive principal of Sandown Bay Academy and Ryde Academy, says that low levels of funding, "hidden" poverty and a lack of cooperation between schools were all significant factors.
"Pockets of deprivation on the island are relatively well hidden," he says. "The estate that people tell me is the more run-down one on the island.feels quite a safe community to walk through at night and it seems well kept by the people who live there. That in-your-face poverty isn't there.
"It's a low-risk community, possibly a hidden community, and some would say a forgotten community."
With ministers increasingly focused on supporting England's most disadvantaged children through initiatives such as the pupil premium, the Isle of Wight - with only moderate levels of deprivation - has seldom been seen as a priority. As a result, its schools have suffered financially.
"These youngsters would be shocked if they saw what state-of-the-art schools are like on the mainland," Jackson says. "And I suspect [the island] would be pretty close to the bottom of the table in terms of funding per pupil. Combined with often higher than average staffing costs because of the age profile, general resources tend to be a little bit more squeezed here."
The failure of many schools to look beyond the Solent - or even the end of the road - has also been an issue historically. On Jackson's arrival, he says, "the pace of change appeared less brisk and purposeful, and disconnected; I felt Sandown was working in isolation. There didn't seem to be a network of schools on the island with a common purpose."
John Clarke, deputy director for education and inclusion at Hampshire County Council, agrees. Schools were allowed to become "excessively free", he says. "The tendency on the island was for one school to compare itself with the school down the road. If it was better, that was good enough, despite the fact that both might require improvement."
But beyond what has been described as the prevailing "island mentality", there were other issues at play. Back in 2007, a radical plan to raise standards was mooted: a switch from a three-tier to a two-tier system. As a result of the reforms, three primaries closed completely; dozens more schools were merged or had to move sites.
Evans was one of the beneficiaries: her school moved to larger premises previously occupied by a middle school. But the overhaul was traumatic for all concerned.
"Looking back, it was horrible," she says. "[The headteachers] were all sat in the same room in a hotel, and we were each given a brown envelope saying whether our school would be closed or not. That's how the news was delivered; it's not the best way to find out."
Many of the decisions ended up being overturned, causing a prolonged period of uncertainty and stress for teachers, pupils and parents across the island.
The "very badly handled" process motivated Isle of Wight council leader Jonathan Bacon to enter local politics. "The data simply wasn't there, so judgements were being made that essentially weren't well informed. I was one of the ones waving a placard on the street."
Clarke agrees that the situation was desperate. "I've heard stories of headteachers saying they had children turn up in September that they didn't know were coming," he says. "People with no experience of young children were being asked to run schools with early years and teach early years. They really had no notion of the differences between that and working in a middle school. There are big differences. In that sense, it threw the island's education system into chaos."
No school is an island
In 2012 the Department for Education, alarmed about standards at the island's schools, issued a directive forcing Isle of Wight Council to enter a strategic partnership with neighbouring Hampshire County Council, which has since assumed responsibility for education on the island.
Progress has been made: attendance levels are now in line with the rest of the country and, in March, the final secondary on the island still rated inadequate by Ofsted left special measures.
A year earlier, Sandown had become the first secondary to move out of Ofsted's lowest category. This was an important moment, according to Jackson. "I hoped it would be a turning point for secondary education on the island," he says. "Until that point it had been all doom and despair. I hoped that would signal a change, and I think it has. The word on the street is things are looking better."
Central to the improvement process has been an attempt to create a more outward-looking schools system. "We're trying all the time to break that notion that you only look at the school down the road. We want the schools on the island to compare themselves with the best in England," Jackson says.
Accordingly, there has been a push to attract school leaders and classroom teachers from further afield, in order to raise aspirations among young people and bring in experience of different ways of teaching. Finding that new blood, though, has been tough. The number of applicants for teaching jobs is "worryingly low", Jackson admits.
"Traditionally you'd put out an advert and people would apply," says Karen Stant, Ryde Academy's human resources manager. "Now you have to be so much more proactive. A lot of our recruitment strategies are around selling the island as a location."
Many who do take up posts choose to commute from the mainland, often from nearby Southampton or Portsmouth. "It's quite an attractive proposition for people on the South Coast: we have a group of staff who come over on the hovercraft," Stant says. "They share taxis up to the site. You see them sat on the boat on their iPads, doing their work."
Jackson, too, travels to the island: he spends three weeks there at a time between trips to his home in the North West.
Natalie Scott, an English teacher at Ryde Academy, makes the journey on a more regular basis. She travels from her Hertfordshire home on a Monday morning, lives on the island during the week, then does the return leg of the 98-mile commute on a Friday (see panel, below).
What may be of concern to the island's schools is that Scott's arrival did not exactly prompt joy among her colleagues. "When I went into classrooms I was treated with suspicion to a certain extent, by some staff thinking `Who is she? What does she know?'," Scott recalls.
But although the welcome from other teachers may have been frosty, Scott has been overwhelmed by the warmth shown to her by the children. "I've never been thanked by pretty much every single student after every single lesson before," she says.
But such is the extent of the recruitment problem at Ryde Academy that it has resorted to searching overseas. Former headteacher Dr Rory Fox, who left the school in February, flew out to Canada and South Africa to interview teachers. He returned from a trip to Durban in the autumn term having signed up seven new members of staff (see panel, page 30).
Yet recruiting from overseas is only a sticking plaster, according to Hampshire County Council school improvement manager Steve Cottrell. "Teaching is teaching, but the curriculum, of course, is different," he says. "People have been brought in, but they've not lasted because they didn't like it or it's not like they thought it was going to be."
Fortunately, the drive for outside recruitment has been combined with efforts to develop home-grown talent. Ryde has also adopted an internal development approach, training up teaching assistants to become teachers - and in some cases supporting them through Open University degrees.
Education charity Teaching Leaders has also been working with Sandown Bay to develop middle leadership teams.
"Coastal schools report that talent management is one of their key challenges - specifically, attracting leaders of core subjects, retaining them and developing talented middle leaders who could be their senior leaders in a few years' time," explains school partnerships and regions director Melanie Renowden. "Some middle leaders used to perceive coastal schools as isolated and lacking in opportunities. However, perceptions are changing."
The absence of another charity - Teach First - on the island rankles with some. The programme, which recruits high-flying graduates to work in the country's toughest schools, has already expanded into coastal areas such as Weymouth, Bournemouth and Great Yarmouth.
But the Isle of Wight remains off limits - for now. "We are working with partners in the area to better understand the local context and the opportunity for Teach First to work with schools on the Isle of Wight in the future," says Tomos Davies, the charity's director for the South Coast.
Meanwhile, recruiting from closer to home will continue to be difficult until standards rise and perceptions of schools on the island improve, Bacon believes.
"People do look at the schools and the education standards and say, `I'm not going to teach there because the schools are terrible'," he says. "The message we're trying to get across is the schools aren't terrible; they are good and getting better and we're going upwards and upwards. It's actually a brilliant time to come here."
All hands on deck
New blood, new ideas and new systems of working have obviously made a difference, but officials on the island are acutely aware that there is still plenty of hard work to be done. It will take four more years for every school on the island to be rated good, according to Cottrell.
"We've done the donkey work and put the building blocks in place," he says. "The next stage is going to be challenging."
Clarke says that one area to review will be academy conversions. Whereas some have succeeded, he argues, others have resulted in less positive outcomes.
Of course, it takes time to implement and maintain systemic change and for the impact to be widely felt. But Clarke is confident that the Isle of Wight is making steady progress and that everything is now in place to ensure that schools thrive.
"There's tremendous capacity on the island. There are some fantastic primary headteachers, some brilliant teachers in secondary schools," he says. "We've brought people from teaching schools in Hampshire and a range of other people from a range of other programmes. It has made a group of people running effectively 50 schools feel part of something much bigger than that.
"Most people on the island didn't know what good looked like. Now we're showing them what they're supposed to be striving for. That had been missing. That little stretch of water has quite an effect on the education system. It's good that that's being broken."
It's all relative: the South African teachers who think the Isle of Wight is paradise
Donovan Naidoo (pictured) left South Africa and his job at a Durban high school to take up a role at Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight.
"Of all the five schools I worked in before, none of them had the technology that this school has or the calibre of students," he says. "I have an ideal class size of 32 students - in South Africa we had 55 students per class."
English teacher Feroza Randeree (also pictured) moved to the island from South Africa in search of a fresh start after she was attacked by armed robbers.
"I was in constant fear," she says. "Here, I don't have to look over my shoulder all the time. I'm happy and so grateful I had the opportunity to come here."
`This beautiful place can't get people to go and help its students'
Every Monday, Natalie Scott's alarm goes off at 3.20am. By 4am, she has left her Hertfordshire home to make the 98-mile commute to Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight.
Traffic and sea conditions permitting, Scott (pictured above) is at her desk by 7am. During the week she sleeps at a nearby bed and breakfast, before setting off on Friday afternoon for the long journey home.
"People say, `You must be really committed or mad'. I think I must be a bit of both," Scott says, laughing.
She first visited a school on the island last March to support local teachers. "After a few days with these amazing teenagers - some of the nicest kids I've ever worked with - I wanted to help," she says.
"On the island, you've got new teachers who just haven't got experience to learn from; you've got experienced teachers who have got a bit out of the loop.
"That little strand of water has created this gap in education terms.
"I just thought it was awful that this beautiful place, which everyone wants to go to for a festival or a holiday, basically can't get people to go and help the students who live there.
"I decided I was going to go to the Isle of Wight and see if I could make a difference."