By Fatima Patel

8 March 2015

The spotlight is on Education in Bradford again as recent results find the City near the bottom of the school league tables for its GCSE results.

The national table, published 29 January, shows Bradford is third from the bottom for the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* to C-grades at GCSE or equivalent – including English and Maths – in last summer’s GCSEs.

Bradford district tied with Blackpool with only 44 per cent of pupils achieved that result, and only Knowsley did worse in the league tables at  35.4 per cent.

Kensington and Chelsea were the top performing area, with 73.8 per cent of state school pupils scoring five or more A*-C grades.

Bradford ranked 140th last year and this year it has slid down to 149 out of 151 places.

In neighbouring Leeds the figure was 51 per cent, with 60 per cent in Calderdale and 56 per cent in Kirklees.

Coming top in the district’s schools for points per student for five or more A*-C grades is Bradford Girls’ Grammar School, followed by Ilkley Grammar School.

At the bottom of the table of 38 eligible schools is the Jaamiatul Imaam Mohammad faith school in Bradford with Tong High School second from bottom.

Official figures show that nationally, the number of secondary schools considered to be under-performing has doubled following a major overhaul of the exams system,.

If Bradford is to overcome the profound challenges in its schools – challenges which lie at the heart of the city’s cultural and linguistic diversity – its civic leaders must show courage and conviction and set themselves high standards which are not watered down at the first sign of difficulty. Many feel though that too often in the past, those in charge have demonstrated weak leadership which has contributed to blighting Bradford’s educational hopes. Many will remember the Serco debacle, the private firm which was appointed the job of running Bradford’s education authority after the Council had received a damning Ofsted inspection.

The firm created a new company, Education Bradford, to take on the £360m 10-year contract to provide improvement services to schools to raise standards. In handing over the management two years into the contract, Bradford Council showed it was willing to try a radical new approach to lift the city from the bottom of the national school league tables. Tough targets were agreed upon with the clear proviso that failure to meet these ambitious goals would result in Serco paying stiff financial penalties. Rather than helping schools to raise their standards, the company appeared to concentrate on persuading the council to lower its sights. The local authority responded to national and local pressure and agreed with Serco to set more modest targets, which in the end it failed to deliver. Instead it asked the Government to step in and help it out after a large number of Bradford schools went into special measures, after failing their Ofsted inspections. A School Improvement Board was tasked with overseeing educational performance and  it included an official from the Department for Education and Skills.

On 29 July 2011, following the end of the 10-year contract with SERCO,  education services were transferred back to the Council. The decision was taken by the Council in an attempt to improve services for children and young people. Following consultation with head teachers, governors and parents, the transfer went smoothly, with the key priority being not to disrupt children’s education in schools.

Following Serco’s departure the education portfolio holder, Councillor Ralph Berry said: “In 2012 and 2013 we delivered two years of progress where gaps between Bradford’s education results and national averages reduced, but did not close.”

He highlighted that an independent Peer Review of Children’s Services in 2014 had recognised that the relationship between schools and the Local Authority had improved since the Serco contract ended. Cllr Berry went on to say, “the fact that Bradford’s results have improved at Key Stage 5 this year, when results have fallen nationally, shows that we can not only aim high but can deliver significant improvements. But we are determined that our schools accelerate these improvements rapidly because the overall results fall considerably short of where they need to be.”

Bradford West MP George Galloway, whose constituency includes Bradford’s largest tertiary educational institutions, Bradford College and Bradford University, however,disagrees. He says, “Cllr Berry has achieved the improbable, but clearly not the impossible, by presiding over a worsening education system. And it was pretty bad before. We’re equal second bottom of 151 local authorities for GCSEs, almost two-thirds of our kids go to schools which are neither good nor excellent – if you dispense with the euphemisms, that means bad in my language. We’re near the bottom of the league also for achievement in children leaving primary.

Independent Cllr Faisal Khan, also former governor of Laisterdyke school said: “From Bradford’s position in the league table, which is absolute rock bottom, it is evident that the Council have achieved anything positive since taking over from Serco, despite changes imposed by the government other local authorities have not regressed in such a way. In fact with the decisions made to remove governors at Belle Vue, Laisterdyke and Carlton Bolling our education chiefs have single- handedly alienated the very people who were making those improvements and who had poured heart and soul into improving education in some of the most deprived areas of the city. This also sends a message to school leaders that they are above being held to account and will get unconditional support, irrespective if children are failed or not.It is a difficult job but comes with responsibility and accountability. This might be something for the portfolio holder to reflect on. “

Cllr Ralph Berry adamantly rejects claims the Council is not adequately supporting and challenging schools to improve. He told Asian Sunday: “Our Education and School Improvement Strategy has been praised by a recent independent review for having the ambitious target of making every school good or outstanding by 2017. Also for “containing the right priorities” to improve rapidly outcomes for children and young people; removing inequalities in learning.

“To suggest education in Bradford is on the decline is unfounded, untrue and ill-informed. Education is on the ascendant with a very challenging and rigorous road to improvement ahead.  We have set very robust targets and we are providing our schools with strong challenge and support to achieve them. We are pushing for urgent improvement, with a particular focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing and numeracy as these are the building blocks for a child’s education.”

Bradford West MP George Galloway however believes that Bradford education is in crisis. He says: “I’ve been saying since I was elected that education in Bradford was in crisis and the response from Berry and the Labour administration is to accuse me of talking the city down. Well, sorry, children’s education is too important to be left to the ones who messed it up, too important to gloss over and attempt to spin that all’s well, or if it isn’t it will be, if you just leave it to us. By 2020 Bradford will be the youngest city in Europe, which ought to be a great strength, but if a large section of our young people haven’t a proper education, have no jobs to go to, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The Bradford West MP believes the solution lies in his Bradford Challenge. He says: “First of all the people running it can’t be trusted to improve it. Bradford gets the same amount of money per pupil as anywhere else in the country. So it’s not solely down to money. Neither is it, as the excuse that is put up has it, that’s it to do with English in many cases being a second language. Nonsense! Tower Hamlets, where I was MP before, had almost an identical demographic – the difference is that the majority are Bengali rather than from Pakistan – and Tower Hamlets has been pulled up by its bootstraps. And without academies and free schools, which are just a way of channelling public funds and public assets into private hands and make no discernible difference. So I’ve suggested a Bradford Challenge, based on the methods that proved so effective in the East End of London. And if that isn’t the answer, then let’s hear what is. Not the platitudes and empty promises which come out of the City Hall.”

Cllr Ralph Berry in reflection believes that there is an absence of additional resources from national government. He strongly believes we need to continue to work in partnership with schools, parents, employers, and local organisations to maximise resources for education and build on the shared consensus of improving education achievement as a top priority.

“We need to continue to seek constructive input and scrutiny of our work from outside experts so we can learn and develop constantly our activity on school improvement. He told Asian Sunday:“We are, for example, wasting no time in focusing on the key points made by Professor David Woods, a key architect of the London Challenge, in his review of the effectiveness of current arrangements to support school improvement in Bradford District. The Council and education sector partnerships are already pressing on with implementing what we have learnt”.

Cllr Berry believes parents have an essential part to play in encouraging and supporting their children’s learning. We need to continue to encourage and support all parents to be able to fulfill this vital role.

Cllr Faisal Khan disagrees with Cllr Berry and believes we should stop the positive spin on mediocrity, which has been masking the under-performance for decades and start to be honest that it isn’t good enough. He says: “Stop coming up with excuses on why we can’t achieve! When head teachers aspire that they can turn schools around and are not beholden to the socio-economic factors that permeate throughout the whole school and the right systems are put in, everyone knows which direction to pull in. At Carlton the results went from 29 per cent to 50 per cent in three years. This means putting in robust basic systems, to track the trajectory of every child and the right interventions to change that trajectory. The interventions need to happen in Year 7 or earlier, not in Year 10 and 11 when it is too late. We need a culture of accountability and the courage to confront heads who have repeatedly failed to believe and failed to even put in the basics to drive and improve education. In terms of focus from the local authority, given the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, I think the role for portfolio for Children & Young People’s Services should be split into two roles, one around education and the other around social care.”

Well,whilst our ‘educated’ leaders are embroiled in the blame game the needs of our children and youth are being compromised. They deserve better.