Presentation to delegates at reading for pleasure and wellbeing organised by English Hub

Hello colleagues and thank you for sticking with me for this final slot at the end of a highly important and impressive day. 

There are times in your life when all the stars seem to align. An uncanny and unlikely episode of events often leads to two people being in one place at the same time.  

My two daughters went on holiday to Japan when they finished university to stay with a university friend who was teaching English as a Foreign Language out there. While they were crossing a busy street in the city one of them bumped into an old school friend. Now, I can’t imagine what the chances of this happening are? 

I met my wife in a monastery in Cheltenham (she wasn’t a nun and I certainly have never had a desire to be a priest) but a friend of mine met someone at a party in London and they explained that they would be heading to a monastery with a group of 60 or so other 18 year old female students the following weekend. When my friend asked if I was interested in going I jumped at the chance and the rest, including the three children and four grandchildren and over 40 years of marriage later is, as they say, history! 

Well, a similar series of events led me to Blackpool in autumn 2019 when I was asked to support the Council in its drive for improvement. It was, and still is, very much a part time role but initially I was asked to mentor a senior colleague. I was rather nervous meeting him for the first time and I suspect he was rather concerned about me and what I might be like. The thing that struck me straight away was the significant work that had already been undertaken and the clarity of thinking about the future direction of the town and the important role education was to play in underpinning the ambition. 

I often talk about the rather negative narrative that seems to follow Blackpool when talking to colleagues who have either never visited the town or have not visited it recently. When I told friends that I was working with the Council many said that the task must be enormous or what’s it really like? It is this attitude that really annoys me because I have only been met by people in the town who want to roll up their sleeves, talk in a straightforward way and try to look to the future. It has been an absolute joy and I feel privileged to have been appointed the Independent Chair of the Blackpool Education Improvement Board.  

One of the first documents that was shared with me when I took up my role was the Council’s Town Prospectus ‘2030 Agenda for Action’ document. This gave me a clear view of where the town was heading and made clear the scale of the educational challenge for the town and didn’t pull any punches.  

The vision and strategy for change in the document supports a commitment to “creating stronger communities and increasing resilience” and seeks to build real capacity within the school-led system so that the Council can act as a facilitator in the improvement of all educational settings.  

Let’s dispel some myths about the quality of Blackpool’s education. Before I do, I want to state that one child not receiving a brilliant school experience is one child too many and the service has not always been as good as it is now, so we do have older children, young people and young adults who need continuing support. But currently, the quality of the education provision in Blackpool is improving and Primary outcomes have never been better. Standards in the Secondary sector are also improving strongly. Special Schools, Post-16 provision and the town’s Pupil Referral Unit are all at least Good and many judged as Outstanding.  

I’m not sure if you are aware but attendance levels before the pandemic and even since the schools have returned are now at least matching the levels achieved in more advantageous communities. The number of pupils being excluded from our schools has dropped like a stone and that was achieved before the pandemic. The rate of exclusion continues to compare very favourably against other areas since pupils returned in September 2020. 

This positive picture explains is why I was fortunate to be appointed to the Board as its independent chair in August 2020.   

My predecessor Maxinne Froggatt led schools through a more challenging period when they needed to agree an approach that meant they sometimes had to put the interests of the town ahead of the interests of their schools and academies. These issues are not mutually exclusive but there was a need to have some honest and open discussions and agree a way forward. Sticking with a broken approach was not possible and I want to put on record how grateful I am for their willingness to support each other. 

The town’s agenda for Action places considerable weight on the central role of schools but it also wants to see greater ambition for all and a more targeted programme of support and intervention than in recent years.  

These improvements reinforce our commitment to the principle of local schools for local children. We know that when Blackpool children stay within Blackpool they generally achieve well and often better than when they access education, for whatever reason, outside of the town.  

It is our belief that Blackpool children should be educated in a local school and we are doing our utmost to make the experience relevant, enjoyable and of the highest quality. We judge their experiences in terms of how well they do educationally and emotionally and how well they grow in terms of their personal development and ability to cope in their future lives.  

We are proud of the many children and young people who are a credit to their families, their schools and the town.  

The improvements in our schools in recent years is down to a dogged determination to enable children and young people to succeed. The quality of teaching and leadership have never been better, but we know that this has not always been the case, so some children and young people need further help to catch up so that they achieve their full potential. Schools are collaborating more on an agreed number of key issues, and this has created a more coordinated approach to improvement that has created a sense of optimism and a shared common purpose across schools 

The pandemic has placed considerable pressure on our local communities. The co-operation and collaboration within our communities has seen neighbours helping each other more, those with more helping those who have less and also, we have seen all of our schools stepping up to help and support their pupils and their families/carers. The increasing co-operation and collaboration that my predecessor led on and I have picked the baton from led to agreement on a 10 year education strategy which we are calling Strategy 2020-2030. I helped draft this document but the spade work had been established well before the writing stage. 

The educational vision highlights the need to focus on improving outcomes at all ages and phases, so that children thrive and achieve their potential in adulthood. This isn’t an unlikely ambition but what is, is that Blackpool has established an agreed 10 year education strategy with all contributors wedded to it. We have attendees today drawn from around the country so I would be interested in whether their local authority have a clear education strategy and one that they are working to achieve? 

It is Blackpool’s collaborative endeavour that will make the difference. The strategy document sets out priorities and ways of working that will enable us to achieve this vision. We have concentrated on the things that matter most. Professor Teresa Cremin drew attention today to much of the latest education research highlights things we have known for some time. So, the strategy concentrates on 4 big themes and you won’t be surprised by these. 

  1. Improving outcomes by addressing standards of literacy 

Blackpool has seen big improvements in literacy standards in recent years particularly at the primary phase but more recently some amazing work at Key Stage 3 across all of our secondary schools has started to dig deep into the attainment issue. We have senior leadership teams that are committed to this. We know that we need to do more to support our pre-school providers in driving up literacy and oracy. This is going to be tough because we are discovering how devastating the pandemic has had on this very important sector. But we know that this education-sector approach will not in itself drive up standards as high as we would want. We haven’t always provided a strong enough literacy/oracy provision so we need to reach out into our local communities so we have libraries, community groups, businesses and the private sector coming on board and joining in this important work. We are going to introduce a literacy pledge and will be trying to get every adult and business in the town to sign up to it. I am personally delighted to see digital literacy drawn into this work. The town has some unique opportunities in the digital world, and we need an integrated approach to realise the benefits these can bring. We have a detailed literacy plan that sits alongside the ambition I have explained here. We have ‘buy in’ to this work and today’s conference is an excellent example of our drive and ambition. 

  1. Promoting inclusive practice 

We want as many children enjoy their education experience and we want them to help us better understand what is working well and what isn’t. We are clear that great teaching is the most powerful inclusive device available to us. So, we are not forgetting to focus on this and today’s conference is just one jig-saw piece in this work.  

We want children from Blackpool to attend school and college regularly and to benefit from everything that is on offer to them. We also want more Blackpool children taught in Blackpool schools and not educated out of the town, with fewer children excluded from school. For all pupils there must be appropriate provision, which means that they have a strong chance of gaining success when they are adults. More children will be in education and training or in the world of work when they are older. We are fortunate to have some amazingly high-quality special schools but we have seen improvements in the quality of provision provided by mainstream schools for those pupils requiring additional help and support. The detail of this inclusion work is covered in a detailed inclusion strategy.  

  1. Developing a place-based approach  

There is no doubt that a good education experience has a positive impact on children’s future. But, and this is a big BUT, it takes more than the school to educate the child. We need to encourage schools and agencies to work together in a geographical area, to build upon the assets and strengths of the communities, and to collaborate fully in tackling the shared challenges. In this way children and families will receive more support for the needs in their neighbourhood and will play their own part in building better and stronger communities. If we are going to improve literacy and oracy standards we need to address weaknesses in these areas for adults and tackle head-on any negative opinions held by parents and carers on the value of reading. As Professor Cremin stated today ‘reading is more than just a hobby’. We need to do more to include the voice of the young person so that they are not only heard, but listened to, and used to shape the services for their area.  

We have created three geographical areas in the town withs chools and colleges at the heart of a place based approach and will be working cross phase so that the early years settings, primary, secondary and post 16 providers share their practice to improve outcomes for children and young people in their area. This place-based approach will mean that schools will be working closely with the agencies in their area, to implement an early help approach to issues and challenges, and to collaborate so that children and families benefit and thrive.  

We are currently developing this approach and our work is being scrutinised carefully by other local authorities. Blackpool is at the forefront of this work. But, this is common sense, isn’t it? It ‘takes a village to educate the child’ maxim is old fashioned but still true, in my opinion. 

  1. Joining up the different programmes and funding streams 

Blackpool has benefited over recent years from a number of programmes and funding streams. Hopefully, through our ‘2030-Agenda for Change’ and education strategy there will be more of these in the future. We need to continue to ensure these are joined up and coordinated. In this way we can maximise the resource to help us address Blackpool’s priorities. We can support schools and communities in a bespoke way and help them to build capacity to share good practice and tackle issues collectively, and for themselves. We want to ensure the legacy of the Opportunity Area, Better Start and HeadStart programmes are maximised and the benefits are felt for many years to come. 

We know that the local authority and all partners within the Blackpool Education Improvement Board must provide a clear vision and strategy for the future. This is the only way we can ensure all children and young people achieve their full potential and ‘no Blackpool child is left behind’.  

We believe schools and colleges should be at the forefront of the delivery of these services, wherever possible, but we also know that they cannot carry the weight of service delivery for all needs in the town. The local authority can provide the oversight and establish the framework for the relationships with a wide range of service deliverers, but the system must provide the answers, through co-operation and collaboration. 

Now, I am pretty certain you have heard someone in authority stand up and lay out ambition and expectations and even distribute glossy strategy documents. What makes this presentation different is I don’t have a glossy document to share!  

The important message from today is that you try your utmost to remember those four key areas we, as a town, are focusing on. 

Remember 

  • Literacy 
  • Inclusive practice 
  • Place-based approach 
  • Joining things up 

If you can remember those, or at least two of them, perhaps literacy and inclusion, then my job has been a success! 

I want to finish with some positive news.  

Last autumn we undertook assessments of many pupils in our primary and secondary schools in reading and mathematics. We have heard a lot at the potential negative impact of the ‘loss of learning’ from the pandemic. I don’t dispute that this may well be a reality in many towns and cities in the UK and/or around the world. But, Blackpool’s children achieved astonishingly strong results and the loss of learning did not appear to be quite as dramatic as we feared. In fact, academic performance closely matched what we would normally expect. These assessments are undertaken in many schools across the country, so we know our performance appears to have held up well despite the negative impact of high numbers of children without a digital device or broadband access.  

A word of warning is that these assessments relate to the impact of the first lockdown. We are going to assess again to determine what the impact of the most recent lockdown has been. We will share the findings, but we need to be optimistic for our children’s sake. It is vital that we give them hope and I think the education service in the town is starting to produce improvements we can all be proud of.  

We have a long way to go but we have started that journey in a positive manner.  

Let’s keep going! 

I am pleased to officially launch Blackpool’s 10 year education plan. 

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