Girls wearing hijabs hang out happily under a giant crucifix in the hall. Biblical and Koranic verses mingle on the walls. The school priest has a doctorate in Islamic studies and leads prayers in Arabic. Everyone attends church together.
This is Ark St Alban’s Academy, a Church of England school in Birmingham where 88 per cent of students are Muslim. You can find it in a smart, brightly coloured building near the city centre, round the corner from Birmingham Central Mosque. Eighty per cent of its students qualify for the pupil premium, yet 69 per cent achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths – well above the national average of 52.8 per cent.
You probably haven’t heard of this school, nor the countless other Birmingham schools achieving similarly impressive results. The prevailing education narrative for this city has been, for some time now, very different.
Down the road from Ark St Alban’s, in cramped Victorian buildings, is one of the schools that came to define Birmingham in the public imagination. In a 2014 visit to what was then called Golden Hillock School, inspectors found serious safeguarding concerns and that sex education had effectively been banned. It became one of the six schools placed in special measures 18 months ago for failing to protect children from extremism, in an episode known as the Trojan Horse scandal.
Since then, no local authority has been more criticised for its work with young people than Birmingham, with half a dozen investigations and inquiries into its activities.
But as serious as the accusations were, they were not representative of the city’s education system. The untold story is that, far from being the sick man of Britain’s schools, Birmingham is one of the best performers.
Turning disadvantage into gold
It took until this year for the local press to highlight a passage in a report from one of the six investigations into Birmingham education – a passage that challenges the narrative of the city’s schools being out of control.
In Sir Bob Kerslake’s independent review of the council (bit.ly/BCCgovernance), tucked away in the annex of supporting evidence, are these words: “A higher proportion of students residing in Birmingham achieved at least five A* to C grades at GCSE compared to other areas, with nearly 60 per cent of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A* to C [including English and maths] in 2012-13. Birmingham has been outperforming other areas since 2008-09.”
The same part of the report reveals that Birmingham has more outstanding schools than the national average for similar areas, with one in four earning the top “outstanding” rating from inspectorate Ofsted. More than three-quarters are good or outstanding – the national average figure is 18 per cent (read the supporting evidence package at bit.ly/BirmEvidence).
Meanwhile, research published last year by Professor Simon Burgess, at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation, unearthed an even more striking fact. He set out to understand why London schools were so successful with the most disadvantaged pupils. But when he compared the capital with other cities, he found something surprising: for that academic year, Birmingham was even better (bit.ly/SBurgess).
Based on data from 2012-13, and taking into account the deprivation of their communities, London schools achieve GCSE results higher than the rest of the country by 5.6 percentage points – but in Birmingham results are 8.8 points higher. London students have a 9.9 percentage point lead in progress at school over the rest of the country, but in Birmingham the lead is 13.4 points.
“Not only do Birmingham pupils outperform the rest of England, they do so to a greater extent than London pupils do,” Burgess says in his report. “In terms of GCSE performance, London is indeed special, as claimed. But so is Birmingham, and in fact even more so.”
Aspiration, aspiration, aspiration
What links London and Birmingham is high levels of immigration and the integration of their schools, Burgess suggests. Although Birmingham has become notorious for failures of integration, the bigger story may be that immigrant students in the city are driving one of the country’s biggest educational success stories.
Aspiration and community go hand in hand at Ark St Alban’s. The first thing you see on arrival is the slogan “Climbing the mountain to university”. The school relentlessly drives home this aspiration, but it also tailors its curriculum to a population of mostly Yemeni and recently arrived Somali immigrant families: that means a huge amount of literacy work, 12 hours a week for some pupils.
Year 11 student Wissam Zendjebil already has two A* GCSEs before most of her cohort have taken an exam. But when she arrived at the school she was far behind, with a level 1 in English. “It’s not that hard because teachers do help to build your confidence in class,” she says. “They make sure that everyone talks to each other and it’s not just a little group in the corner; they mix you up together.”
Over the summer, principal Mark Gregory went door-to-door, visiting 98 of the families of students joining the school to impress the ethos on them. Typically, he says, he was welcomed with open arms and offered lassi. And this approach has had a big impact.
“Kids who came in on level 3s have gone on to Russell Group universities – I get goose pimples just talking about it,” says Fionnuala O’Connor, a history and IT teacher. “After seven years of hearing that they will go to university, they believed it.”
At Parkfield Community School, a primary just yards from two schools implicated in the Trojan Horse episode, aspiration and community are also crucial, as is tackling language deficits. Indeed, the latter is a common thread in Birmingham schools that is driving remarkable results within deprived communities.
“When I came to the school, I had an inner vision, quite a private vision at the time, that I wanted to make the school the best school in the country for children with English as an additional language,” says headteacher Hazel Pulley.
That turned out not to be enough. Pulley also had to tackle deprivation and integration: rounding up children to ensure they made it to school on time, educating family members so they could help with homework, bringing in mentors to raise aspirations for girls, and challenging prejudice between minority groups.
But although helping students with their English wasn’t enough on its own, it did have an impact beyond the community of recent immigrants. Pulley says the achievement of third and fourth-generation Pakistani families was also held back by poor English skills.
Burgess suggests that part of the success of London and Birmingham is driven by immigrant families’ greater hopes and expectations of education. But it’s also true that the work schools do to realise immigrants’ dreams can help everyone else as well: integrating communities and raising achievement go together.
“When I came [to Parkfield] seven years ago there would be parents who would say, ‘My child isn’t taking part in art, music or PE and they’re not going swimming. And they’re certainly not going to another place of worship’,” says Pulley. “Now, everybody does everything.”
Back to normality
The city is eager to see its record of success recognised and to put the Trojan Horse crisis behind it. “We’re calling this the ‘Year of Normal’ in Birmingham,” says Brigid Jones in an office in Birmingham’s ornate Victorian Council House. “Where we can focus on normal things like attainment and improving kids’ lives.”
Jones is the cabinet member for education and children’s services. With an ongoing social services crisis also in her portfolio, “normal” is something that has been sorely lacking. But she’s keen to dismantle the perception that Trojan Horse was reflective of the city council or Birmingham’s communities.
The council argues that successive governments made an already complex school system even harder to oversee, and contributed to the Trojan Horse incident by creating gaps in accountability.
“When Michael Gove [then education secretary] first called in the leader of the council to find out what we were going to do about Park View [another school placed in special measures], the leader of the council had to say, ‘Well, it’s an academy – what are you going to do about Park View?” Jones says. “I think that was a bit of a shock to [Gove].”
She has a point: the story of Birmingham’s failure was created by central government, which had the media megaphone and used it to distract attention from its own role in overseeing academies (five out of six Trojan Horse schools fell into this category).
But Birmingham had also clearly failed to adapt to the new schools landscape. Headteachers say the city’s education data team used to be one of its biggest strengths, but it has been decimated by budget cuts.
The council is now trying to recreate that detailed understanding of all the city’s schools, with a new “data dashboard” intended to be an early warning system that can sound the alarm on a range of issues, from complaints to governor turnover. The council blames difficulties in obtaining data from other agencies for not implementing this sooner.
But Sir Mike Tomlinson, the commissioner appointed by the Department for Education, says this glosses over failure. “The fact was they didn’t even have the data for their own maintained schools,” he says.
Headteachers from around the city have taken the initiative to bring unity to this sprawling, fragmented system. Three years ago, they formed the Birmingham Education Partnership to encourage collaboration. In September, the partnership gained new urgency and significance, after the city council awarded it the contract for school improvement.
Tomlinson compares the system to the London Challenge in its potential to transform the schools’ reputation. “The beginnings are there,” he says.
Legacy at risk
Tim Boyes, the partnership’s chief executive, is a headteacher with decades of experience in the city’s schools. He says the exceptional results Birmingham now achieves with deprived students originated in the city-wide effort to raise standards, which began in the 1990s under Tim Brighouse, the popular chief education officer who would go on to lead the London Challenge.
“When London maintained schools were absolutely on the floor and a national disgrace, 10 years ago, Birmingham was in a very good place,” Boyes says.
The city had a strong foundation of self-confidence, stability and collaboration. “There are a lot of people around who have done their trade and grown in a fairly healthy educational environment in Birmingham,” Boyes says. But he is worried that its legacy is under threat.
He says the city council faces multiple problems: eroded budgets and loss of control over education, a poorer economy than many cities and a social services crisis that is a drain on effort and resources. It also faced a “massively hostile” Ofsted, he says, because inspectors felt the council wasn’t challenging failure.
The inspectorate acknowledges Birmingham’s results, but says its schools are particularly vulnerable after leadership crises such as Trojan Horse. “Ofsted is committed to ensuring that such drastic declines are not repeated,” a spokesman says.
The latest figures for 2014 show the attainment gap widening for secondaries in Birmingham, from 19 to 21 per cent, though primaries continue to close the gap. Boyes says Birmingham needs to get better at telling the story of its success. “There are some data stories that are blatant that are really good to tell,” he adds.
So far, the argument goes, central government hasn’t helped. “When it all kicked off, Mr Gove and the coalition really relished the opportunity to give Birmingham a kicking,” Boyes says. “It was much easier to attack Birmingham than to actually admit that some of the dismantling of local authority powers, and the marketisation and giving power to parents and governors, might actually generate a problem.”
The DfE declined to comment on the suggestion that it had made the city a scapegoat, but praised the growing role of the Birmingham Education Partnership. “School-to-school improvement is an effective way of driving up standards and the Birmingham Education Partnership has shown the potential of a school-led system,” a spokesman said.
The schools also recognise, though, that their experience should act as a warning that our fragmented school system is inherently vulnerable. That’s why the partnership aims to bring schools together in a closely integrated network. “The whole philosophy is not to have any isolated schools in Birmingham,” says Tomlinson.
That should be food for thought in other communities. If Trojan Horse was not enabled by some culture of laxity in the council or extremism in the community, then something like it could happen anywhere.
As one city council official put it, “We were just the first to catch the illness.”