Why Gove is wrong to erode council control

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Tory Nickie Aiken, schools boss for an inner-city borough, speaks out

Over the past eight years, we at Westminster City Council have achieved nothing short of a revolution in our inner-city schools. While central government is seeking to reduce local authorities' involvement in schools, we have shown how a relationship between councils and schools can dramatically turn around results - and the prospects of pupils.

An intensive series of bold reforms and new ideas have helped to elevate our state secondary schools from previously low standards, making Westminster the country's top-ranked local authority in terms of pupil progress.

The leadership of the council, specifically former leaders Sir Simon Milton and Colin Barrow, played a defining role in this eight-year journey. This story begins in 2004, with the controversial decision to close the failing North Westminster Community School and start to embrace the early academy system by opening two new academies in 2006. This was followed in 2008 by the opening of Pimlico Academy, after the former Pimlico School was placed in special measures.

Such decisions have clearly paid dividends over the past three years. Most of the borough's new academies now return impressive achievement and progress results and are rated outstanding by Ofsted. Just a few weeks ago, Paddington Academy emerged as our biggest improver in A-level results. Its 116 A-level pupils achieved an A*-C pass rate of 81.2 per cent, up significantly from 65.5 per cent the previous year. The school already has eight pupils with confirmed places at Russell Group universities.

In 2008, the local authority set up an independent Westminster Education Commission to obtain an independent view on how it should support its schools to improve further. While the external perception of Westminster might be of an affluent part of London, in reality it is an extremely diverse borough with extremes of wealth and relative and absolute deprivation. The commission was in fact looking at an inner-London borough in which a third of children were eligible for free school meals and 64.1 per cent spoke English as an additional language.

The commission looked at Westminster's schools and made a series of recommendations, such as senior managers making more regular visits to each school, an overhaul of early-years provision and greater sharing of information between primary, secondary and special schools during transition.

In 2009, Westminster City Council continued this focus on improvement by setting a target, in partnership with schools, of 75 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. Considering that the proportion achieving this was just 46 per cent at the time, it was an ambitious goal, but not impossible. We could have played it safer and opted for 70 per cent, but we wanted to see just how much progress might be possible with the right targeted student intervention programmes and a strong vision.

The council supported this target by investing #163;60,000 a year in every state school in both 2010 and 2011 to spend on specialist teaching.

We learned last month that we had reached our goal, but there is more work to do if we want to keep improving. What we do know is that we are heading in the right direction.

There is also a real focus on empowering a new breed of heads, whose energy and fresh ideas have helped to turn around their respective schools or to continue on an upward trajectory. Our heads chair their own meetings and set their own agendas, but also work closely with us and have a strong safety net of support from our schools standards team when needed, as well as pastoral support from our children's and family services department.

It is also worth mentioning that a similar trajectory of improvement has been taking place in our primary schools, and the benefits of this are now filtering into our secondary system. The positive impact of our primary-to-secondary transfer support is also taking hold, better preparing pupils for secondary school.

Positive contribution

This dramatic sea change for Westminster schools means we are excelling in terms of pupil progress and closing the gap between the most privileged and most deprived pupils. However, our achievements come at a time when the Department for Education is intent on stripping local authorities of much of their involvement in schools. The education secretary appears to have tarnished all councils with the same brush, even in cases like Westminster, where we have harnessed our local expertise and accountability to bring a change for the better in our local state schools.

This erosion of our control over schools means that, despite all our progress over the past decade, our continued performance at this level is far from guaranteed. The move away from council control of education might be justified in some cases, but I call on the government to take a more common sense approach in boroughs where the local authority has made a very positive contribution.

High-performing councils like Westminster should be allowed to retain a statutory and commissioning role in order to maintain high standards at their local schools. They should also retain the power to intervene in any schools where standards are slipping, including academies.

Turning schools around involves a lot of different people working closely together over a period of time, including the head, teaching staff, local authority officers, governors, parents and the wider community. In cases such as Westminster, the local council has proven itself to be an integral part of this improvement. Any tinkering with this winning formula raises a question mark over continued progress, and makes our accountability to local residents and school communities increasingly difficult.

Nickie Aiken is a Conservative councillor and Westminster City Council cabinet member for children, young people and community protection.

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