Islington –A Case study


Back in 2000 Islington was, and probably still is, widely regarded as the epi-centre of the liberal commentariat. But whereas the commentariat then enjoyed much about Islington, few wanted to send their children to its schools.

In 2000 the Labour government ordered Islington to outsource its education provision as its schools were some of the worst in London. Nine schools, eight Primary and one Secondary, were in special measures or had serious weaknesses. This meant around 14% of schools in the borough were failing to provide adequate education for children. By the end of Key Stage 4 only 26.5% of pupils achieved good GCSEs. Cambridge Education Ltd– part of Mott MacDonald – won the initial outsourced seven-year contract. Cambridge Education have since transformed the schools landscape. This irritates some- the ideologues and dogmatists, who believe that profit makers have no place in state education, but it certainly doesn’t irritate local parents.   More than 70% of pupils achieved at least five A*-C GCSEs in 2010 up from 27% in 2000. Provisional GCSE results for Islington’s schools in 2011 show that the number of pupils achieving 5 or more A* – C grade GCSEs has risen to 75 per cent.  19 per cent of Islington students scored top marks, gaining 3 or more A*- A grades.  Ofsted judged all the borough’s schools at least satisfactory, with 75% rated good or better, and one fifth judged outstanding. This is 22% above the national average. For sure, there  were some teething problems, and Cambridge Education had to take it on the chin initially losing £200,000 in revenue due to missed targets(imagine that happening to an LEA) but that is what accountability is all about. It takes time of course to transform individual schools, (a couple of years generally) and groups of schools but results in Islington bucked this trend. In 2001, Ofsted reported that “the tide has turned in Islington”, with “a sense of purpose and optimism instilled”. In short, exam results have improved every year now since 2000. Mark Taylor, Director of Schools at Cambridge Education considers what he thinks has led to the changes in Islington over the decade The main pillars he believes are people and vision. Taylor told MJ (Local Govt publication) “We’ve provided high-quality support for head teachers and schools including training and development, and we’ve given support according to need, so in inverse proportion to success.”  High-Quality evidence and data is crucial too. Taylor believes in getting qualitative data to schools and governors “so they could see how well their school was doing”. But this information and knowledge has little value unless you can use it to improve outcomes. The relentless focus all the way through is on outcomes. There has to be an analytical approach to evaluation which then informs a carefully differentiated support framework.   Support for teachers is important too in the form of continuing professional development and training across the board, creating a learning community, disseminating best practice and so on “from cradle to grave”. Taylor appreciates the indispensable role played by Heads, teachers , governors and of course, crucially,  parents  in Islington’s success story and the setting of high expectations, along with improving schools’ financial management, and a “focus on accurate self-evaluation by schools, so they knew how good they were and focused on what to do next”.  At the heart of all this though is building a network of sound working relationships among and between stakeholders. None more important, in this respect, than the relationship between Cambridge Education and the local authority.

Much nonsense is talked about how outsourcing reduces accountability. There are two types of accountability-short and long. Short accountability is delivered through a contractual relationship. So, these are the outcomes we want from you the contractor-you deliver these outcomes for an agreed fee. If you fail to deliver these outcomes then we have in place some sanctions-fines for instance, or the ultimate sanction-loss of the contract. Short and sweet.

Long Accountability, on the other hand,  is provided by the local authority, through elected Councillors who are periodically up for election and they seek in turn  to make local officials accountable to them for the service  and support they provide(with varying degrees of success).The most ‘accountable’ and transparent  systems then  surely   deliver both short and long accountability as, when  combined they guard against complacency, challenge directly  underperformance  and deliver a creative tension   ensuring that the needs of the consumers (rather than producers) ie pupils and parents, are paramount.

Cambridge Educations current contract lasts until 2013.


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