It was more than 15 years ago that I walked bleary eyed into a Central London press briefing to hear an outspoken Ofsted chief inspector demand drastic action to counter the “miserable failure” in Bradford’s schools system.
Back then I was a young(ish) education reporter on the city’s Telegraph & Argus newspaper; I’d travelled down on the first morning train from West Yorkshire. And it was the late Chris Woodhead who was castigating Bradford’s education leaders for their “negligence, incompetence and self-obsession” in the full glare of the national media.
This week, history repeated itself as Ofsted’s latest chief inspector, the similarly vociferous Sir Michael Wilshaw, tore into the city for its under-performance at both primary and secondary level, with schools that remained “mired in mediocrity”.
He blamed the situation on a lack of political leadership and a local authority “slow to drive improvement”. “Bradford needs its own [schools] commissioner,” Sir Michael concluded.
Strikingly, his predecessor’s diagnosis was virtually identical. In 2000, as I sat down to interview Woodhead immediately after Ofsted’s stinging attack on Bradford’s “poverty of aspirations”, he told me that he had been “shocked by the failure of leadership” in the authority.
A decade-and-a-half later, here we are again. You well might ask, as Sir Michael did on Tuesday: “What on earth have the political leaders been doing over the years in this major city?”
The answer, actually, is quite a lot. No one could accuse Bradford Council of inaction in its response to Ofsted’s 2000 verdict on its education services.
Labour’s schools minister at the time, Estelle Morris, immediately said that most of Bradford’s local education authority functions would have to be taken out of its control. And then, the biggest education privatisation in British history was set in motion.
Highly paid managers
The result was a fiendishly complicated structure that saw Serco – a company that was then best known for running London’s Docklands Light Railway – win the £360 million, 10-year contract to run Bradford’s schools, operating under the scrutiny of a kind of shadow council education team.
“Education Bradford”, as the new privatised organisation was known, was set up in a corporate HQ away from City Hall, and the number of highly paid managers working in Bradford education multiplied overnight.
There was certainly no “poverty of aspirations” at Serco. I vividly remember interviewing an executive the company brought in to oversee the start of the contract in 2001. He told me with a straight face that Bradford would now leap 81 places up the national GCSE league table of 150 local education authorities and rank alongside the national average.
“Are you really sure about that?” I asked. That didn’t just mean producing better GCSE results, it meant improving at a faster rate than the scores of other areas authorities stacked above Bradford in the league table.
It would mean climbing above shire counties like Devon and affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea. Did he honestly believe that was possible? Yes, he was sure, he said. Not only that, but Bradford would achieve this educational miracle in double-quick time. Not by 2011 when the contract was due to end – but in just five years.
I left gobsmacked by what I felt was an almost insulting lack of recognition of the reality of the problems faced by my adopted home city.
The national GCSE league tables that have been produced in the past couple of decades show what could just as well be a league table of economic deprivation. Permanent residents in the basement include poverty-afflicted areas like Knowsley, Blackpool, Stoke and Barnsley.
And, year in, year out, you will find Bradford, a proud Yorkshire town still recovering from the collapse of its woollen industries decades ago.
Sir Michael made it clear on Tuesday that he did not regard deprivation as an acceptable explanation for such low achievement.
He pointed to the “alarming fact” that “educational success and failure aren’t spread evenly across the country”. Ofsted has judged 79 per cent of secondaries in the South to be “good” or “outstanding” compared with 68 per cent of those in the North and the Midlands.
But, given the now established links between Ofsted findings and pupil background, isn’t that exactly what you would expect?
Sir Michael’s argument is that Ofsted judgements on primary schools – which do not show a regional divide – prove that there is no need for this divide to exist at all.
Whether that disproves the idea that it is poverty that lies behind the North-South divide at secondary level, or just that it takes several years for the full impact of deprivation and a lack of aspiration to feed through to pupils’ results, is open to question.
Serco’s drive to propel Bradford up the league table, needless to say, failed. The city never got anywhere near the GCSE national average in 2005, 2010 or 2015 and remains significantly below it for primary test results as well.
Indeed Serco missed so many of its targets – which came with financial bonuses attached – that it was allowed to renegotiate them twice in the first four years of its Bradford contract. The fact that the company ended up arguing that they were unrealistic and would not give it a proper incentive to succeed would be hilarious were it not so depressingly predictable.
The truth is that the privatisation – which ended in 2011 when management of Bradford education reverted back to the council – did no worse than any of the numerous other central government schemes that have attempted to “drive up standards” in the city over the years.
Sir Michael has said that if exceptional improvements were possible in the poorest areas of London over the past decade, they should be possible in Bradford.
But money surely comes into it: Bradford schools receive £4,838 per pupil in government funding, compared with £5,211 in Birmingham and a whopping £7,007 in Tower Hamlets.
London itself may also offer a more aspirational atmosphere than the crumbling mills of Bradford.
But what can be done about it? The answer, for Ofsted’s current chief inspector – like Chris Woodhead before him – is rooted in local political leadership. But then, as Sir Michael noted this week, school autonomy on its own does not automatically lead to success.
If Bradford ever does get the education commissioner that Sir Michael thinks it needs, and they are to really make a difference, then they will need to understand the city. They will need to understand its problems, its history, its pride and its potential. Because off-the-shelf solutions dreamed up in a distant London office will not work. That is the one thing we do know.