Independent Enquiry offers a devastating critique of Westminster Council’s role in local education

Posted: 22/09/09

The scale of change and improvement in the local education system has been so profound that many people have forgotten the position we were in a decade ago.

This was the task list in the late 1990s: create 3 new Academy schools to replace the faltering North Westminster Community School, in what was without doubt the most complex and challenging secondary school re-development project in Britain (close a large school scattered across three sites, and with all the children still in place, re-open as three new schools in new buildings); launch a £150 million renovation and rebuild scheme for many of the remaining schools, to say nothing of a £100million plus college of Further Education; raise exam results across the board; introduce extended schools to provide activities and outreach outside the traditional school day; offer many pupils the government's personalised learning programme; work alongside and sometimes as part of, Children's Centres, which are aimed at improving early intervention in the lives of children and families; expand the provision of formal childcare.

All this and more has happened - a tribute to the heads and staff, parents and pupils who have invested so much in turning Westminster's education service around. A decade ago, half of the secondary schools in the Borough were judged to be have ‘Serious Weaknesses', as were a number of primary schools. Today, the situation is quite literally transformed, as I can testify from my various experiences - as a parent, a school governor, and an MP who was had the pleasure to visit so many of these schools, attend prize-givings and assemblies, and indeed have some of these fantastic young people doing work experience in my office.

Yet the report of Westminster's Education Commission - a panel of independent advisors asked to look at why the Borough was not doing as well as it should as an Education Authority - gives us some food for thought.

What are we to make for example, of Commission's findings that "the relationship of the authority and schools (to be) sometimes awkward and mistrusting and in some cases, virtually non-existent?"

Which way should the relationship go in future? The Commission, for example, favours powers to intervene if an Academy school gets into difficulties, yet the Conservative position is to do away with education authorities altogether. Logic dictates that schools flourish in a community context, not in isolation. Do councils turn their back or work to strengthen the links?

Why has a ‘flagship' local authority been found to have a lack of provision for students with behavioural and emotional difficulties, given that this group is both particularly vulnerable and, if unsupported, likely to present wider challenges to the community? The Commission found (as I feared) that "current arrangements for children at risk of exclusion offer neither a credible education nor value for money"? How was this situation allowed to develop?

Why is Westminster Council considering a third scheme to encourage university access when, as the Commission found "schemes currently underway have not been fully exploited"?

Why are so many elected councillors not involved with, or informed about education? As the report states "...On numerous occasions, the Commission was informed that there was a growing lack of interest in education among elected members". Why? And what will now be done about it?

We can all rally round the Commission's conclusion that results have improved significantly in recent years, but this valuable report contains important evidence of weaknesses, not amongst committed staff but at the level of elected members running the Council. They need to attend to their priorities if the gains that have been made recently are not to be put at risk.