Apparently, the Education Service is on a journey, although on the evidence it is a downward journey to lower standards. In order to improve these standards, Mr O’Brien had wanted and was given all responsibility for school affairs after Kelly Tolhurst relinquished her post as Cabinet Member with responsibility for school Improvement on her election as MP for Rochester and Strood in May. However, although there is no evidence that there had been any improvement in school standards under her leadership “it was not her fault”. Mr O’Brien apparently now needs now needs more time to turn this situation round (implicitly acknowledging previous failures). The only other idea put forward by Mr Jarrett to help on the journey, was the proposal to attract highly paid headteachers from well-resourced London Boroughs, which offered strong and effective support to their schools, to come and work in Medway. Other unspecified improvements have been put in place, it being a serious situation but it will take time for them to have an effect: “its not an instant fix”.
Mr Jarrett saw a major obstacle to progress nationally as the advent of Academies, out of Local Authority control, well-resourced but accountable to Medway Council for standards, even though the Council did not have the ability or power to influence these. His attack on the Academy concept came as somewhat of a surprise (Conservative policy being to convert all schools to academies), but he made clear he considered that it had failed in its prime purpose to improve schools. He then became somewhat confused on the subject, arguing first that Medway run primary schools performed better by 9% than academies then, when Julia George put the point that many Medway primary academies had converted precisely because the Local Authority had failed them, quoted the Maths School as an example of a successful academy (this is a secondary grammar school, which was also successful before academisation, so I must confess I could not follow the thought process).
Neither did he explain what this 9% is a measure of; I am not sure. He explained how academisation had seen funds lost to Local Authority schools. However, he was unable to explain why Medway schools, both academies and those run by the Council had fared worse than all other Local Authorities, which had the same situation. When pressed he declared that the academy concept, now over ten years old, was at an early stage.
One area where he did differ from the Cabinet Member for Education was his view that the Council had strategic responsibility for education, whereas Mr O’Brien has repeatedly abdicated on this, usually placing blame on school governors foremost, then headteachers, with no reference to Medway Council’s failed School Improvement Department which surely carries a major slice of responsibility for this appalling situation.
Incidentally, as I was writing this article, OFSTED published a Report on one of these problem Medway primary academies, Kingfisher Community Primary school in Walderslade, lauding its great progress since leaving Medway Council control!
Winding up on education, Julia George returned to the sharp increase in exclusion figures in figures for permanent and fixed term exclusions in Medway, which placed the authority third worst Local Authority in the country. Mr Jarrett also this considered unacceptable, did not know the reasons for (surely someone in Medway council ought to have looked into this by now), but again thought the blame should be placed at the door of the academies. He made the false claim that that the situation had arisen because Medway has more academies than Council run schools (it is about 40% overall, with 31% of primary schools academised as against 14% of primaries nationally, in September 2015).
Looking at Children’s Services, Julia George pointed out that Mike O’Brien had been in charge when the Service was found Inadequate by OFSTED, but Mr Jarrett considered that Mike O’Brien and Barbara Peacock, Head of Education and Children’s Services, deserved praise for their work in turning it round to “Requires Improvement” which he considered the new “Good”, so no problem there! he considered childhood obesity, a national problem but had no view on it being higher in Medway than anywhere else in the country.
In my opinion this was an excellent interview by Julia George, exposing the poverty of Medway Council’s educational expertise and ability to change a dire situation under current leadership. Mr Jarrett failed to answer a single question convincingly and sadly for the future of Medway’s primary aged children, the quality of their education at such a critical age shows no sign of improving, with the Council failing to get to grips with the critical decisions.