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20.02.15

Cheshire East: Partnership working the key to tackling school attainment gaps

Mark Bayley, corporate manager for standards and learning at Cheshire East Council, and Cllr Rachel Bailey, cabinet member for safeguarding children and adults, discuss the importance of partnership working in bridging school attainment gaps. 

Since its creation six years ago, Cheshire East Council has been working hard to drive up performance and standards in schools, engaging with virtually everyone who can possibly have influence or a role in education. 

Through a variety of programmes, partnership working and some additional funding, the local authority’s schools have now been ranked the third best in England, based on performance in Ofsted inspections. 

Out of 141 primary and secondary schools in the borough inspected under the education watchdog’s 2012 framework, 93.6% were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. 

The only local authorities ranked higher in the whole of England were the City of London, where Ofsted inspected just one school, and the London Borough of Wandsworth, where 65 schools were rated. 

Speaking to PSE about the work over the last few years, Mark Bayley (pictured), corporate manager for standards and learning at Cheshire East Council, said: “We’re at a very interesting stage between local authorities and schools, as the government is promoting ‘sector-led improvement’ and it is very strongly now wanting more school-to-school support. 

Mark Bayley“But for many local authorities, the relationships with their schools, and particularly their academies, is not perfect. 

“We’ve worked hard over the last 18 months to establish what we’re calling our partnership of schools through our Education Board. We have a strategic group, which has representatives of all sectors in the schools, and that has generated our overall plan for the next three years. This partnership working has been our overall key driver.” 

In the last five years, education standards in Cheshire East have improved at all key stages. At Key Stage 4, the local authority is ranked 53rd nationally for pupils achieving five or more grades at A*- C, including English and maths. 

To sustain improvement, the borough’s partners have drawn together a strategy called ‘Achievement for All’, which builds on what has been delivered previously and most importantly, reflects new integrated working. 

Future improvements will be shaped by effective collaboration to maximise resources, utilise outstanding practitioners and fully embrace sector-led improvement. 

Cllr Rachel Bailey, the local authority’s cabinet member for safeguarding children and adults, said: “I came into this portfolio about two years ago and at that stage the relationship between schools and the local authority in Cheshire East was going through the bumpy spell where schools [were becoming] autonomous and very much encouraged, by national policy, to become academies. 

“The local authority influence had changed. There was also a little bit of a lack of joint working, but that has been very much addressed and continues to be addressed with regular conferences and sessions for our schools in Cheshire East. The vision has been put forward that the local authority believes in its schools, relies on its schools and wants to enable them to deliver success.” 

Three core principles 

As part of the Cheshire East strategy, schools and colleges not only lead their own improvement but actively contribute to the improvement of others. Additionally, the borough’s four ‘teaching schools’ (outstanding schools that work with others to train and develop both new and experienced school staff) have become crucial in brokering local expertise through structured school-to-school support arrangements.

Bayley told us that the local authority has worked hard to develop a strategic plan with three core principles for all its schools: supporting vulnerable groups; providing highly effective school support; and improving the transition for learners into the world of work. 

Egerton Primary 6 edit

Discussing the plans to improve the attainment gap for disadvantaged and vulnerable students, Bayley told us: “There is a big push at the moment on Pupil Premium and disadvantaged pupils. We do extremely well on all areas for all learners, but like any local authority we have pockets to improve on. 

“For us, our disadvantaged pupils are the ones we need to get better outcomes for. That is a trait for many authorities, particularly shire [counties], as we tend to have lower numbers of those pupils.” 

In 2013-14, the attainment gap for Cheshire East’s disadvantaged students was reduced to 27%, with further reductions to single figures expected by 2016-17. But, currently, 14 schools have a disadvantage gap larger than the national average at the end of Key Stage 4. 

Bayley explained: “Where attainment levels are lower in an area overall, the gaps tend to be lower because that distance between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students is smaller than somewhere like Cheshire East. But we are improving and reducing the gap.” 

More staff is one way of doing this, she said, which has been happening at both primary and secondary schools.  

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“The big thing the government is pushing, and Ofsted do in their reports, is for an external review of the Pupil Premium disadvantaged gap,” said Bayley. “We are paying for all of those reviews in our secondary schools as part of our commitment to this because, obviously, schools would have to pay for that process otherwise. 

“Instead, we’re paying for it to show that we really mean business on this, and we have now done 14 of those out of our 21 secondary schools. Once these have been completed, the schools then work on the action plan that comes out of it. We’re using what are called ‘National Leaders of Education’ – identified people throughout the country who have a track record on closing gaps – and they’re working with us and going in to do those reviews in schools.” 

Additionally, the local authority is working with its Teaching Schools, and locality groups, to ensure that if there is a need in a school, such as extra English support, then that is brokered appropriately from a range of sources. “That might come from a Teaching School or the local authority or a neighbouring school, but it is brokered in in the right way for the need of it,” said Bayley. 

Also, Cheshire East is trying to make the transition process for its learners into the world of work more effective by providing the right careers advice. 

“This allows our students to make informed decisions once they leave compulsory education,” said Bayley. “Connexions have come back into the local authority and we utilise their staff. They’re much more targeted to the areas and communities with the highest levels of NEET (not in education, employment or training). 

“We want NEET to be as low as possible, and we have had real improvement on these figures over the last 12-18 months. We’re also working hard with our local businesses and employers. We’re looking at getting businesses regularly in schools, showcasing case studies and we’re working on something called the ‘Crewe Pledge’, which is where businesses and educational establishments work together for our young people.” 

Requires improvement 

In the last 12 months, Ofsted has also been working more collaboratively with Cheshire East to co-deliver a programme for its ‘requires improvement’ schools. 

The schools involved have attended training sessions and surgeries where they could receive advice from Ofsted, allowing them to work on various aspects of their delivery in a ‘pre-Ofsted’ style environment. 

Bayley said: “We have had some real success with those programmes. Out of the 22 schools in that group, and of the ones that have been expected, over 80% of those have now gone up to ‘good’.” 

Cllr Bailey (pictured) added that although the authority’s team has been streamlined in recent years, the achievements are a huge credit to their work and enthusiasm – led by Mark Bayley. 

Cllr Rachel Bailey“We are, as a local authority, in the bottom quartile [for] funding through dedicated schools grants, but actually it is about using that money wisely,” she said. 

“I think we have, overall, got good engagement with our schools. But you cannot take your foot off the throttle – you have to keep working at it.” 

Asked what advice Cheshire East would give to other local authorities across the country, Bayley said: “Constantly work with your family of schools within your local authority. When academies came along there seemed to be a feeling that schools would turn into academies and then disappear into the sunset, and there wouldn’t be any connections. 

“But we have worked hard to maintain those relationships. My advice would be maintain it, work at it and promote it.” 

With regards to the greater autonomy of academies, Cheshire East had a “positive meeting” with the regional commissioner for the area recently. 

“They want us to keep them informed when we have concerns with academies,” said Bayley. “There is an emerging national picture and we would always want, as a local authority, to be kept informed about our schools because, ultimately, whether an academy or not, there are still Cheshire East pupils going to the schools. 

“I think things are getting better, especially as the dialogue with regional commissioners is happening. As long as that can continue we’re happy to work within a changing national picture.”

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