Thursday, 18 March 2010

'The End of an Era in Leeds'

In case you missed Debbie Leigh's double page spread in the Yorkshire Evening Post this evening here it is...

"Ten years ago Leeds City Council's Education Department was left reeling after a damning report by Ofsted. At the time Chris Woodhead, then HM chief inspector of schools, said of all LEA reports published by the education watchdog, "the report on Leeds gives me the most concern." Among the issues raised were allegations of political interference in the running of the department, poor relationships with schools, as well as lack of a clear strategy for special educational needs. Mr Woodhead said: "To put it bluntly, in these schools (inner-city secondaries) the LEA does more harm than good, often to the most vulnerable children in the most disadvantaged areas."

In 2001 Education Leeds – a company owned by the council to provide support services to schools – was established, tasked with transforming the city's educational landscape. The team has been streamlined from 1,700 to around 1,150 now, including 350 of the original employees. And the organisation, which has an annual budget of £60m, has also downsized from four deputies and 17 directors to one deputy and five directors. A report by Ofsted in 2005 found it was the most improved local education authority in the country. It successes range from exam results to pupils' health, attendance and efforts to combat racism.

However, it's not been gold stars all round. In January, it was revealed four Leeds schools were in the bottom 20 in the country for achieving at least five good GCSE grades, according to Government figures for 2009. Leeds City Council was in the bottom third of 151 local authorities, with 45.9 per cent of youngsters at state schools gaining five or more passes at grades A* to C – including core subjects English and maths. The national pass rate is 49.8 per cent.

But now, sparked by concerns over safeguarding and the idea that children are better protected by integrated services, the council is planning to create a new children's services directorate headed by a director whose responsibilities will include education. The move follows a series of critical reports which have found the department is failing youngsters. As part of the plans to co-ordinate services for young people, staff at Education Leeds will transfer to the directorate and the council's contract with Education Leeds will end on March 31 next year.

Chris Edwards, chief executive of Education Leeds, was consulted over the proposals and has been working with newly-appointed interim director of children's services Eleanor Brazil on transitional plans. He said the aim was to build on the best of what had been achieved over the last nine years.

"What we have said to the politicians is, this is an extraordinary organisation that has done an amazing job." He added: "What I said is, I must be convinced that what you replace it with is even better." He confessed: "I've gone through anger and sadness to resignation. "Education Leeds has been the best thing that's ever happened to me and to see the end of it will be incredibly sad. My commitment is that what comes next is going to be even better. This city deserves brilliant children's services." He said it was testament to the organisation's success that it was still in place after nine years. He added: "My only regret is there's more to do – there's another five years to do."

But he is proud of the changes that have been made. He said five years ago people didn't want to send their children to their local schools but there had been a cultural change and now with schools like Morley High – one of the top 20 most improved schools in the country – plus David Young Community Academy in Seacroft and John Smeaton Community College, Swarcliffe, people were "banging on the door to come in." He said: "It's a very different place to 2001 when I came."

The irony of Education Leeds being named as one of the 75 Best Places to work in the Public Sector, around a week after the decision to terminate its contract, was not lost on Mr Edwards. And he argued that for him, the reasons Education Leeds was needed in 2001 still stand today. He said: "We are more efficient, more effective than the previous education department by a mile." He added: "Politicians have said, in the last five years you have done what we couldn't in 20."

And perhaps understandably, for someone who led the campaign for change across the city and succeeded in many areas, Mr Edwards is not convinced the transfer of power is necessary and questions the wisdom of creating an integrated directorate – something in place in almost every other local authority around the country. He said: "I think in five years time we may think differently about that – but that's where we are." He added: "The best way you can safeguard a child is to give them a great education."

I am disappointed that Debbie included so little of what I said to her about what we have achieved together. She has also interpreted some of what I said to her about the future as a lack of understanding of or support for the changes the Council is proposing. However, it clearly is the end of a very special era in Leeds where we have achieved so much and we must ensure that whatever comes next builds on those achievements and delivers even better outcomes for children and young people, their familes and communities.

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