Council responds to Ofsted mauling

Countywide testing for Northumberland pupils, to be in place by the summer, is one of the goals of the county council, as it responds to recent criticism from Ofsted.

And a wide range of further options, including more support for schools, teachers, leadership and governors, were discussed as Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee met on Tuesday morning.

It came after school inspectors spent a focused week in the county in October, sparked by concerns about the attainment of pupils on free school meals compared to elsewhere.

A total of 17 schools were inspected and while one was graded as outstanding and three good (including St Paul’s Middle School in Alnwick), a further nine required improvement and four were placed in special measures – St Cuthbert’s RC First School in Amble, Lindisfarne Middle School in Alnwick, Guide Post Middle School and Prudhoe High School.

Ofsted also criticised the local authority for a perceived lack of support for its schools.

The countywide testing, which will not be curricular so will not require further teaching, is designed to address one of the key issues raised by Ofsted.

This relates to the transfer of pupils from first to middle and then middle to high school and schools being unable to trust each other in terms of pupil ability and attainment.

Coun Robert Arckless, policy board member for children’s services, said: “We do need to have consistency.We want to get that absolutely right.

“We can’t hide behind the school system, with middle schools blaming the first schools and high schools blaming the middle schools, that’s got to stop.

“We just want to make sure that where we have information, that we have got it right.”

Daljit Lally, the new corporate director of children’s services, also referred to other measures being brought in, which include ensuring the school support team is up to full strength, allowing two advisors to work two extra days each, specifically for English and maths, with schools that need support and augmenting the current team with additional skills.

Within six months, it is hoped that the team will have been restructured.

And all of these steps are alongside a review of the council’s senior leadership team and of the council’s school improvement and support services.

Another key theme that came out of the meeting, which was attended by a number of councillors who aren’t members of the committee, was of the need to work together.

Coun Arckless ended the meeting by thanking other members for their support and said he felt optimistic about the future, despite the major issues that the authority faces.

Earlier in the meeting, he said: “This has been a very difficult and sometimes painful process. I don’t understimate the scale of the challenge we face.

“We must remember that some of the schools came out of the inspections well, but there are issues that came out that we cannot hide from and we need to deal with.

“The process could be criticised, but I don’t think anything can be gained by getting into an argument with Ofsted.

“I don’t think we knew the schools as well as we should, I accept that. I accept that too much money came out of school support.”

But Coun Arckless also reiterated a point made throughout the process; that the three-tier structure in much of Northumberland is not the issue at hand.

“We have a fragmented school system, that’s not going to change,” he said.

“I want to make it absolutely clear – the issue has to be about standards, not structures. We have to make the system we have got work as well as it can.

“I’m not afraid to tackle issues of structure change if it’s right for a specific school partnership and it’s wanted by the community. I very much prefer to work in partnership wherever possible.

“But I’m not sitting on some sort of blueprint for a grand plan to change the system.”