Alderman Blaxill School

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:16 pm on 22nd October 2007.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 10:16 pm, 22nd October 2007

I congratulate Bob Russell on securing this debate. He has raised the situation with me a number of times through parliamentary questions, and I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues, even though we may not see completely eye to eye. I am sure that Essex county council will take note of his many comments about it, through reading either Hansard or the faithful reporting of this debate in the Colchester Gazette.

The background to this debate is the importance of standards in schools, and the circumstances in which robust intervention, particularly secondary special measures, can become necessary. I want briefly to give some national figures to put the Colchester case into perspective. The hon. Gentleman asked whether Essex county council itself should be put in special measures. He will be disappointed to hear that I am advised that, generally, Essex is assessed as being strong on children's services. Its main weakness is in secondary provision and I shall make some comments about that, but children's services as a whole are in reasonable shape, according to the inspectors of Essex county council—not that it is my job to be its advocate.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of acknowledging the particular problems faced by schools that serve a large number of children from service families. That is one of the reasons why I took measures to ensure that the pupil count—the school census—takes account of and records the children of service families. I made that promise to the Select Committee on Defence when it examined that subject.

On 1 September, 42 secondary schools were in special measures in this country, six of which were in Essex and, as the hon. Gentleman said, no fewer than three were in Colchester: Sir Charles Lucas, Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools. Thomas Lord Audley school has now come out of special measures, but it is still under a notice to improve. That means it is still providing an inadequate education for its pupils but Ofsted considers that its leadership has demonstrated the capacity to improve further. I wish it every success.

Nevertheless, a serious situation undoubtedly remains in these Colchester schools. In 2005, only 38 per cent. of pupils at Alderman Blaxill were achieving five or more grades A* to C GCSEs, which is well below the national and county average of 56 per cent. That should have sent a warning signal both to the local authority and to the school's governors, but rather than improvement, there has been a fall in attainment since. Figures for 2006 show only 34 per cent. achieving their five GCSE passes. Provisional figures for this year are even worse at 24 per cent. If we look at the same figures including English and maths—the basics that are essential if children are to prosper in the future—they fell from 16 per cent. to 14 per cent. between 2005 and 2006. At the same time, Thomas Lord Audley's figures were 26 per cent. in 2005 and 38 per cent. in 2006, and 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. including English and maths, showing an improvement.

Sad to say, the provisional 2007 results, this time including English and maths, show Alderman Blaxill school with 17 per cent., Thomas Lord Audley school 27 per cent. and Sir Charles Lucas school 26 per cent. In those three Colchester schools, only around one quarter of young people, sometimes less, are leaving with the qualifications they need. So none of us should be satisfied with that. It is clear that pupils in schools like Alderman Blaxill and other local schools have not shared in the school improvements and rising standards of recent years.

Alderman Blaxill is in a very serious position. The Ofsted report from May this year highlighted the rapid staff turnover, unsatisfactory teaching and learning, inadequate leadership and management, insufficient challenge from the governors, falling rolls and increasing deficit. I should like to quote what the Ofsted inspectors said about some of those points:

"Students' achievement is unsatisfactory. Standards at the school are too low and are declining. Relatively few students leave with good GCSE results, and many leave with poor literacy and numeracy skills. Students are not appropriately equipped for further study or employment. The school's expectations for students are too low. Assessment and monitoring of progress are weak.

Most students are not clear what they should do to improve....Unfilled vacancies mean that students have too many temporary teachers so continuity is poor. One student commented that 'there is no point coming to school because we have different teachers every day'".

On achievement and standards, for which the school received the lowest category, the report said:

"Overall progress during Key Stage 3 is significantly slower than expected and has declined since 2005. Students' progress in mathematics and English is weak."

I could go on at length. On leadership and management, which also received a grade 4, the report said:

"Leadership and management are inadequate. The school fails to provide a satisfactory standard of education for its students."

Let me now address the concerns of the hon. Member for Colchester about the replacement of the governing body at Alderman Blaxhill. The report also identified serious weaknesses in the way in which the governing body was operating:

"Governors have not challenged the school's poor performance sufficiently. Pupil numbers are falling, and this is putting additional pressure on the school's financial deficit. The governing body has not ensured that there is a clear strategic direction."

Similarly, when analysing leadership and management in the school, inspectors found that:

"Governors, though supportive of the recent changes introduced by the new headteacher, do not challenge or hold the school to account. For example, they have not challenged the school for the lack of improvements since the last inspection and have not ensured that there is clear strategic direction."

There was also a deterioration in the relationship between the local authority and the governors—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—which resulted in a delay to the submission of the statement of action following the special measures designation. For those reasons, together with the poor performance I noted earlier, the local authority has taken the step of seeking the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to replace the governing body with an interim executive board, as the hon. Gentleman said. This is an important step towards immediate improvement, though clearly much work needs to be done locally to drive longer term change.

Local authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the benefit of interim executive boards as they invariably drive forward the necessary changes for schools to recover from special measures. An IEB is usually a small focused group with typically between three and six members, appointed for the full period that it is expected to take to turn the school around. It takes on all the responsibilities of a governing body, including the management of the budget, the curriculum, staffing, pay and performance management, and the appointment of the head teacher and deputy head teacher. The IEB's main functions are to secure a sound basis for future improvement in the school and promote high standards of educational achievement. Members will often have experience of turning round other schools in difficulties or be members of a local authority school improvement service. The members of this IEB have more experience than the former governing body. The chair is Martin North, a consultant head from Havering, and he will be joined by a national strategies expert— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend Mr. Purchase says it is a mockery—

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