Statement by Councillor Tony Jones,
Lead Member for Education,
Reading Borough Council
When I was elected to the position of Lead member for Education in May 2015, I made a public undertaking not to use the organisation and performance of schools in Reading as a party political football and invited others to join with me in this approach.
Since then, discussions around education matters in the town have been held in a largely non-partisan manner.
While change does not happen "overnight", sure and steady progress is being made in improving academic performance and attainment. At the centre of the council's education strategy has been the establishing of a schools-led improvement partnership. There have been regular and positive meetings between council officials and Ofsted and the Regional Schools Commissioner (who has responsibility for academies).
Reading council's now well documented and demanding target is to ensure that every school in Reading is in the top 25% in England within the next three years. It is also a matter of public record that any failure to achieve this outcome will trigger my resignation.
So it is with great regret that the past week has seemed at times to be something of a very public mugging of the council's education strategy.
It started last Monday when, out of the blue at around mid-day, I was advised that Reading Borough Council's press officer had been made aware that Mr Bradley Simmons (the new Regional Director for Ofsted in the South East) had issued a letter to the council through the Ofsted press office, under embargo. Within minutes I started to receive enquiries about the content of the letter from local and regional news journalists.
The fact that a letter of such significance was routed to council officers and the lead councillor through a press release is odd and a highly unusual departure from the norm.
Amongst those listed as recipients of the letter was the "Cabinet Member Schools Portfolio". I do appreciate that Mr Simmons is relatively new to the South East Region (as on Sunday, 17 April 2016 the official government website still had him listed as working in the South West Region) so may not yet be up to speed on the details of Reading council, but the cabinet system of government in Reading was abolished a number of years ago.
In the first paragraph of Mr Simmons' letter he expressed the view that "The low achievement of pupils entitled to free schools meals causes me particular alarm."
He went on to comment on the "shocking fall in the GCSE performance of pupils eligible for free school meals. In 2014, 30.7% of these pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C ... in 2015, only 23.8% achieved this level." and further opines that "the future is bleak for these young people".
Mr Simmons' concludes by saying that the council "has a key responsibility to act as a champion for its most vulnerable pupils" and challenges the council to "demonstrate the political will necessary to raise the aspirations of your most vulnerable young pupils".
All very quotable, head-line grabbing language from this civil servant.
Indeed, many of these phrases were picked up and hurled at the council in the broadcast and print news media.
An Ofsted inspector took to a local radio station to describe Reading council's approach to the performance of pupils entitled to free school meal as as "requiring improvement".
If I am to be charitable to Mr Simmons perhaps he has not been fully briefed on what has actually happened in Reading in the area he felt the need to speak in such forthright terms.
This is the truth:
Six of the eight secondary schools to which he referred are academies and as such the responsibility in law of the Regional Schools Commissioner (yes, I know, not many people have heard of such a position) rather than the council (which most people still think "controls schools").
Of the two non-academies, there was no decline in performance - in fact things improved between 2014 and 2015.
Blessed Hugh Faringdon ... 30% (2014) improved to 40% (2015)
Reading Girls'... 31% (no change between 2014 and 2015)
But in the academies, there was a notable decline in the following schools:
John Madejski Academy ... 31% (2014) fell to 18% (2015)
Highdown School ... 64% (2014) fell to 38% (2015)
Prospect ... 32% (2014) fell to 29% (2015)
But sadly the letter from Mr Simmons did not include this information, just the overall totals where the comparative figure between 2014 and 2015 was quoted, but not the fact that it had been dragged down by the poor performance by some of the town's academies - easier instead to use language which would be used to pillory the council.
Either by design or ignorance no mention was made in Mr Simmons' letter of the council's schools-led improvement partnership which includes closing the gap of those on FSM as a major priority, nor that here have been regular and positive meetings between council officials and Ofsted - though an Ofsted official withdrew at short notice and without explanation from a meeting with Reading schools governors last week. Now we know why.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, the MP for Reading East Mr Rob Wilson was very quick off the mark - with a statement hitting the airways ten minutes after the mid-night embargo had expired.
The MP's comments talked of the Ofsted letter being "shocking to read ... the most devastating terms I have ever seen."
In one strong assertion regarding those entitled to Free School Meals:
"It is a devastating indictment of the Labour run Council that these disadvantaged young people's opportunities are being destroyed and their aspirations stifled by failing schools and a failing local authority".
Well the failing schools responsible for the decline in standards are all academies.
In fact one of these academies, the JMA, which is the worst performing of all, has a former Chief Inspector of Schools and former boss of Ofsted (and now a University Vice Chancellor) on its board of governors. But still they can't get it right.
And they are all regulated by the Regional Schools Commissoner - not the council.
But Mr Wilson made no mention of these facts.
Instead, the MP simply prefers to talk about "this set of results must be the final straw" and a "scandal".
He also pointed to the recent government announcement of forcing all schools to be come academies - whether they want to or not.
At the end of the week, when a more clear view can be taken of the issues raised by the letter from Mr Simmons' I would say on the basis of this performance his Ofsted department should be put in "special measures" for dealing with such an important matter in an ill-informed, partial and sensational way.
To the MP for Reading East, I would say next time you think you have an opportunity to knock Reading Council, please do a little fact checking before trying to do us down - your spectacular own goal on this matter will not be forgotten.