Schools improving and council having impact, but more to do

Andy Johnson, director of education at Northumberland County Council.
Andy Johnson, director of education at Northumberland County Council.

By working together, ‘we can help Northumberland become more successful, cohesive and prosperous’ – that’s the view of the county’s director of education.

This assertion comes as part of Andy Johnson’s commentary in his annual report – his third since taking on the role in the aftermath of criticism of both schools and the local authority by Ofsted in 2013.

Reflecting on the 2015/16 academic year, Mr Johnson described it as a ‘great pleasure’ to ‘report that our schools have begun to improve and the local authority is having more impact on supporting that improvement’.

He added: ‘However, given the underachievement in the past, we still have a long way to go and must continue to focus relentlessly on improving secondary education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people.’

Referring to major changes brought in by the Government over recent years, he said: ‘Those working in the education system in Northumberland have responded well to these changes, however, because of the unique nature of the school system across Northumberland, they are faced with even greater challenges than most schools nationally.’

Mr Johnson sets out three key aims which will enable success – high standards in education in every part of the county; high-quality leadership and excellent teachers; and shared values that transcend community differences.

As in previous years, there were more issues in 2015/16 at secondary level than at primary level, where a large number of schools were performing well, although the pressures on primaries are set to mount.

He wrote: ‘The quality of primary schools (including first schools) has remained strong with close to 90 per cent being found to be good or outstanding.

‘However, in the first few weeks of the 2016/17 academic year, it has become clear that first and primary schools in Northumberland will face very significant challenges due to their relatively small size if they are to maintain these standards.

‘A worrying sign has been the number of primary schools and first schools which have recently dropped one or two inspection grades.’

Mr Johnson continued: ‘In 2014/15, I highlighted the disproportionate number of secondary schools where academic outcomes were below average; in 2015/16, this was reflected in many being judged by Ofsted to require special measures or to have serious weaknesses.

‘As a result, many of these schools have become sponsored academies.

‘In 2016/17, the legacy of underachievement remains, but at last we are beginning to see signs of recovery in schools.

‘However, we remain as one of 10 local authorities in England with 40 per cent or more of pupils in secondary schools and academies that are less than good and where attainment and progress measured by the new accountability measures are below average.’

While not excusing this, Mr Johnson does add some national context as ‘this is a common issue across the North and the Midlands, where every area is below the new national measures: Progress 8, Attainment 8 and achievement of the English Baccalaureate’.

He added: ‘Ofsted have raised concerns at a national level about the quality of education in areas of England that are geographically and economically isolated, many of which are in coastal areas, and Northumberland faces all of those challenges.’