Opening presentation to Blackpool Education Leaders at The Moving Forward Together Virtual Event on 14 October 2020

16/10/20

Good afternoon colleagues and thank you for finding the time to join us. This is a very important event for Blackpool. Whether we look at this through the lens of the children and young people, their families and carers, the professional educational staff who support and guide them, the governors who give so much, the businesses that want to offer employment and enable success in the town what we are discussing this afternoon is a vision and an approach that will help us through the uncertain future that lies ahead.

I started teaching in 1979. I had left a job in banking because despite it being well paid, and as my mother told me guaranteed a very low mortgage rate, it was nonetheless boring. During the 41 years since I have experienced a lot and I thought I had seen it all when I left my second headship to join the ranks of HMI. But colleagues it is clear I had not seen it all. The Covid pandemic is totally new and I have to admit I am unsure how effective I would have been as a headteacher and I am in awe at the way you have risen to the challenge.

I am fortunate in the range of work I do, that I have insight into the workings of many northern regions and their local authorities. It is clear that all have stepped up to face into the headwind but there are a few who have gone way further and appear to have coped better. Blackpool is one of those areas. You have put your communities first, and let’s face it you always did this, but it was never under the national spotlight in the way it is now. Keeping schools open for the children of keyworkers and providing meals and support for families was critical in ensuring we maintained social cohesion in the town. It kept the most vulnerable families afloat.

But, since the opening up of education settings for all children and young people in September you have managed a range of new and often unpredictable challenges. These remarkable efforts are ensuring children and young people are attending more regularly than in many other areas and this has ensured that we are able to keep an eye on those who are most vulnerable; those that need our help and support the most. Yes, they are back learning and that’s great but importantly they are first and foremost being cared for. You have shown your love for them and I am sure will continue to do so whatever comes our way. You should be proud of your efforts and I want to say a big thank you!

The future, however, is uncertain and I fully understand why strategic thinking has had to take a back seat. This is not a criticism because this is a major national emergency and as such schools would be negligent if they ignored the immediate and significant challenges. But, this event gives us all a couple of hours to look to a time when hopefully Covid is under control and enables us to consider how we pull together again to ensure Blackpool citizens are not adversely affected by the looming recession that is an unfortunate and likely outcome and the challenges that this will bring.

The 2020-2030 strategy brings together a range of projects, initiatives and ideas that have been generated in the town over the past few years. The focus on literacy, inclusion and NEET are the main pillars of the strategy but there are other elements and I hope during this event you can find time to consider these. The Chatroom session provides a chance for you to consider how we can ensure we don’t lose impetus between the various phases of a child’s educational journey and also consider whether their learning pathways will provide interest, enthusiasm and work opportunities for them. The Strategy is trying to capture what the town needs to do to ensure our children and young people are as well placed as possible to thrive in the uncertain world we will face post-Covid.

We would like you to share your thoughts with others and to try and make a commitment to work with colleagues to deliver the plan. Our educational settings are in a difficult place at the moment, but this will eventually pass, and we need this Strategy to coalesce behind.

Before I finish, I would like to say something about what I call ‘the Blackpool narrative’. When I was asked by the DfE to offer some additional support to the Council’s leadership team last October I came with an open mind. My visits to the town had been rare (I live in Stockport) and apart from the inspection I undertook at Thames Primary School in 1995 I had not visited a Blackpool educational setting since. I managed to arrange some hasty visits to a few schools prior to the lockdown and will take the chance as soon as I can to visit more when we are in calmer and safer waters.

When I mentioned to colleagues that I was going to support the Council there were a few raised eyebrows and some note of caution. They wanted to make sure I understood the scale of the challenge. The comments, I now know, were based on a rather negative narrative that generally sits outside of the town amongst some who clearly have never visited recently Blackpool’s schools and Colleges. This is something I am very keen to address. The Blackpool Narrative will only be challenged if we speak decisively and effectively about the successes and the remarkable improvements that are flowing through the system. We can find the words to explain that we are on a journey and there are some aspects that need further improvement but let’s commit to us all dispelling the rather negative Blackpool Narrative. It is untrue and ill conceived.

I have been amazed and uplifted by the willingness of colleagues in the town to collaborate and cooperate to support each other and the communities they serve. There is optimism and there is absolute professional ability and capability. These are vitally important ingredients for the future. This is why I was delighted, when I was appointed as Chair of the Blackpool Education Improvement Board in late summer. The change of name from School Improvement Board to Education Improvement Board is important because it is trying to acknowledge that although schools and other educational settings are right at the heart of a town improvement plan they are just one important brick in the structure. Covid has highlighted this acutely. It is impressive that Diane Booth identified the need for a Family and Children’s Board that coordinates the efforts of all services and how the Board I chair links in.

We have some amazing schools and educational settings; many of which are national leaders in their fields. We have a higher proportion of Good and Outstanding schools in some phases than nationally and where they are not, we are making rapid improvements. I particularly want to draw attention to the magnificent work undertaken by secondary schools in reducing significantly the rate of fixed term and permanent exclusions and the efforts of all of you in ensuring high and or strongly improving rates of pupil and student attendance now. This is a crucial indicator. We need all of our children and young people to be engaged with learning and attending regularly. This is a fluctuating challenge at the moment but I am encouraged by the efforts of you and your colleagues in doing your utmost in this regard.

So, please speak honestly and constructively so that we can better understand the strategy and the challenges we will face in delivering it. Thank you so much for your time.

You are community heroes and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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