GEOFF BARTON: Let’s focus on attracting good teachers

A Personal View
A Personal View
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One thing we can say about the past year is that education has never been far from the headlines, whether in Suffolk as a whole or here in Bury St Edmunds and its surrounding villages.

Even in last week’s annual report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, our county cropped up again.

Sir Michael Wilshaw didn’t exactly say that Suffolk was rubbish, but in his various interviews and in the general media coverage there was a distinctly gloomy underlying message.

All of us in education in this glorious county have been sent, it seems, to sit once again on the collective naughty step.

Whether you are a student or parent or carer or an employer or grandparent or someone who works in education, there’s really no escape from the significance of education in our everyday lives.

Preparing young people with the skills and qualities to become effective citizens matters a lot to all of us. It’s how society passes its shared knowledge from one generation to the next. We can’t afford to get it wrong.

And since I’m the grizzled veteran of this particular patch, having been in West Suffolk as deputy and headteacher for more than 16 years, I often get wheeled out to give the insider’s view of why Suffolk keeps getting into the news for negative reasons.

In this, people often look for simple explanations.

My guess is that rural counties like Suffolk are frequently misunderstood by Whitehall policy makers. Because deprivation is more scattered than in, say, an inner-city borough, we can look leafy and complacent.

Thus, fresh-faced policy advisers sticking a head beyond the Government bunker will suggest: “If only you did what they were doing in Hackney, all would be well.”

In reality – as the playwright George Bernard Shaw said – ‘false generalisations are the curse of organised life’ (which was in itself, perhaps, a bit of a generalisation).

In other words, it’s not quite so simple.

I recently bumped into an educational legend, Sir Tim Brighouse, who was Chief Education Officer for Birmingham, Oxfordshire and, most recently, London, where he helped our capital to become one of the UK’s top-performing areas.

He posed me a familiar question. ‘When I was in Birmingham, we used to envy Suffolk,’ he said. ‘It’s where we aspired to be. What went wrong?’

Having spent time last week interviewing and leading training with trainees, I am convinced that a major solution is getting more great teachers to come and work here.

And, inevitably, that is going to prove harder if education in Suffolk is constantly being sniped at. Take the media reporting of Sir Michael’s annual report last week. It left out the good news: ‘Children in England now have the best chance they have ever had of attending a good school. Good and outstanding schools make up 78 per cent of all schools inspected in England.’

When Sir Tim Brighouse reinvigorated education in London he did it through getting schools to work together to improve teaching, share training, and to hold each other accountable through a strong spirit of challenging partnership.

He called it the London Challenge, and London now tops most of England’s performance tables.

That sense of mission – of getting back to our rightful place as a county where the best teachers want to come and work – should be our New Year priority.

More condemnation from the sidelines isn’t what’s needed, but a long-term relentless focus on developing more great teachers and school leaders, letting them know when they are doing a good job as well as when they get it wrong.

My hunch is that 2014 is the year we will detect a bracing new sense of Suffolk’s educational rejuvenation.