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Council answers questions on education

Monday 7th July 2014


With growing criticism about the number of under-performing schools being turned in to academies in the Maidstone area, we put KCC's cabinet member for education, Roger Gough, in the chair to get the county council's take on the huge changes taking place in our schools.


We asked Cllr Gough:


We read that some 21 teachers have been sacked across the county in the last two years, 11 following a critical Ofsted inspection? What's going on?

No headteacher has been sacked by KCC. A very small number have left their posts as a result of disciplinary procedures, or the use of capability procedures when performance has been a concern.

Nearly all headteachers who routinely leave Kent do so as a result of retirement, promotion or relocation. The very small number of headteachers who have left their posts for other reasons have done so following discussions about their ability to fulfil their roles and responsibilities – either following an Ofsted inspection or where the county council has had ongoing concerns. This is always in discussion with the governing body. All headteachers who have left KCC for those reasons have received considerable support from both KCC and, in most cases, through their peer colleagues.

Kent has seen really strong improvement in the performance of its schools over the last three years. Three years ago 54% of schools were good or better. As we stand today, 76% of schools are good or better. This has occurred through the strong partnership of headteachers with the local authority school improvement team to make sure there are high expectations for all pupils in Kent schools. Strong, quality leadership plays a vital role in this improvement and we have a wealth of high quality headteachers in Kent. Many are now effectively leading more than one school.


There has been widespread criticism about the 'strong arm tactics' being used by KCC in the way it has handled the situation, with six heads from the Maidstone area recently suspended or leaving suddenly? Do you accept this?

We do not accept this. We support headteachers who can make improvements but we do not accept repeated failure to secure good learning outcomes for children, who only get one chance at education. No parent would thank us for allowing situations to continue in which their children do not do well at school. Maidstone has been a cause of concern for poor school performance, achieving outcomes significantly poorer than other parts of Kent. This situation has begun to improve dramatically as a result of improvements in school leadership. In 2013, about 50% of Maidstone primary schools did not perform as well as schools nationally. Predictions for this year show this should improve significantly. In 2013, there were 11 local authority schools in Maidstone in which no more than 65% of pupils achieved a level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths. This year, all but two schools are predicting to be significantly above this benchmark. The overwhelming majority of primary schools currently judged by Ofsted to require improvement are on track to be good schools at their next inspection.


Education experts say a culture of fear now exists among the county's head teachers? Should this be the case?

We have evidence of positive feedback from headteachers that there is good support, advice, training and challenge for school improvement.

We have worked actively with headteachers to ensure they lead the education system in Kent and its improvement through the Kent Association of Headteachers, in partnership with headteachers.

We believe it is widely accepted that poor performance in schools is not acceptable and we take action to address this. There is a focused school improvement strategy to support schools to improve. All headteachers, if they choose to, can benefit from support from their colleagues, a wide range of training opportunities, advice and support from a local authority adviser and sometimes specific mentoring and coaching. 

The culture in Kent is one of partnership, support and development but with high expectations of the performance of all schools. Having higher expectations does mean greater accountability for school performance at all levels within a school. The vast majority of headteachers have risen to the challenge for improvement across Kent schools and the data shows that Kent is now above, or in line with the vast majority of national indicators. This was not the case three years ago. At the same time, the Ofsted framework has also raised the expectations on schools and we welcome that improvement. Headteachers of the 600 schools in Kent recognise the increase in accountability and are committed to delivering the very best educational outcomes for Kent children. We do not have a significant headteacher vacancy rate and all schools have leadership capacity in place.


Are other teachers being encouraged to leave voluntarily?

There is no encouragement for any professional to leave voluntarily. If, after significant support, colleagues are finding it difficult to fulfil their roles and responsibilities, then a discussion about the best way forward will take place.


Has this extraordinarily high turnover of staff been instigated by Ofsted or KCC?

This is not an extraordinarily high turnover rate. In a county as large as Kent, a relatively modest turnover of headteachers is expected. Like the country as a whole, many senior school staff are reaching or approaching retirement. The process of planning for the succession of school leaders is something that has been taken very seriously in Kent – with the council identifying and supporting the next generation of leaders. These include current deputy and assistant headteachers. We are also working with a group of headteachers who are keen to become executive headteachers. There are about 40 headteachers on the current programme and we have interest from a further 30.


There is a view that the county council is hell bent on washing its hands of under-performing schools by forcing them to become independently funded academies? Is this a fair summing up of KCC's policy on under-performing schools?

This is absolutely not the case. We are committed to maintaining and supporting the county’s schools. There are 146 academies - mostly secondary schools - out of the 600 schools in Kent. Most of those are good and outstanding schools that converted to academy status as a matter of choice.

Even where a school fails an inspection, we will robustly argue that a sponsored academy solution is not always the best arrangement for a particular school, if we have a better improvement package. In a number of cases these are accepted by the Department for Education.

The commitments we give to supporting schools and headteachers demonstrate that Kent County Council is extremely supportive of all its schools – and the leadership running those schools. As a council, we are absolutely committed to making sure that all children can attend a good or outstanding school and never wash our hands of schools that are struggling or facing challenging circumstances. We provide a great deal of support so that headteachers can fulfil their roles and responsibilities in making sure their school is good or better. However, in situations where, after a great deal of support, headteachers cannot fulfil their responsibilities, the council works with governors to make sure the school secures strong and effective new leadership.


Do you consider the rise in the number of academies in Kent a positive step that will benefit pupils in the longer term?

There are 71 secondary academy and free schools in Kent, as well as 75 primary academies and free schools. We have not seen any particular appetite in primary schools for this option – or, indeed, more of our secondary schools – and the council is not interested in promoting this approach or forcing the pace.

The most significant development in this area has been the Diocesan multi-academy trusts, where the Catholic and Anglican dioceses are looking to bring their schools into their own trusts. Where a school fails its inspection, national policy places an expectation that the school will become an academy to drive rapid improvement. We work closely with the Department for Education under these circumstances. Academisation is only a benefit to pupils when a school has the capacity for improvement and strong leadership and governance. Academies that under-perform are a concern because they may receive very little oversight.


Is this 'privatisation' of schools simply another cost-cutting measure?

This is not the privatisation of schools. Academies are state-funded schools and many do an excellent job. We work closely with Kent academies and many who have capacity do a great job in supporting the improvement of other schools, which is very welcome. Academy status is a national policy and Kent acknowledges that this is part of the current educational landscape. We consider the education of all Kent children and young people to be our concern and we actively promote collaboration between all schools. We support academies, federations, trust arrangements and any other form of governance and partnership that strengthens schools – and their ability to provide the very best learning outcomes for all pupils.