It was at about four o’clock yesterday afternoon that the first indications came through that the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was going to talk about Leicester.
He’s ordered an investigation into why Leicester’s “National Challenge” (I hate this phrase because it does everything other than describe what it means) schools – those where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils didn’t achieve at least five good GCSEs last year, of which there are four in the city, – aren’t progressing as fast as he thinks they should.
(Incidentally, we’re talking here about Babington, Riverside, Fullhurst and New College, where the proportion reaching the five GCSEs with English and maths is hovering around the 20 per cent mark.)
Sir Mike Tomlinson – you couldn’t really get anyone much more senior in the education elite, he’s the former Chief Inspector of Schools – is going to lead the inquiry in Leicester and report back in September.
It’s already too late to change much. The schools will be on holiday for much of that time. Many of his conclusions will depend on this summer’s GCSE results but the exams are already over.
Balls’s thinly veiled threat is that if it’s found that Leicester hasn’t made enough improvement and the “serious concerns” he expressed today would imply he doesn’t think it has, he’ll intervene and take over the running of education.
Little could be worse for Leicester City Council’s Children’s Services department.
It was in November 2007 when I first got wind that the Government was unhappy with the way things were going. No announcement was made, and it was denied by Leicester City Council at the time, but it soon became clear that the Government had threatened then to intervene. Six months later the department was given an official notice to improve.
Then, as now, I was asked why the Government was choosing this moment to flex it muscles. Arguably Leicester has seen darker days.
It has cost a lot of money – and estimated £8 million is being spent on the city’s school improvement plan, more than £4 million was spent last financial year on private consultants – but there has been a sense that things are stabilising.
In the charismatic Bob Clark as the interim education supremo, the city has someone it’s been crying out for for a decade – an inspirational leader who has more experience of turning round failing education authorities than almost anyone else in the country.
And, slowly but surely, schools are improving.
So why now? The answer, I think, lies in a sentence buried near the end of Balls’s statement. He said:
“I expect all local authorities to continue to work in partnership with us and consider the full menu of options for accelerating improvements, including the development of Academy or National Challenge Trust plans.”
While Leicester is certainly consulting on at least two academies the feeling is things have been bubbling along quite nicely without such dramatic changes. The co-operation between the best city schools and the weakest – Rushey Mead is even seconding some of their teachers to Fullhurst – is held up as one of the best examples of its kind in the country.
There certainly exists some sceptism privately among education chiefs that the academy route is not the best option for Leicester but there’s also the sense that under the current Government, they don’t really have much choice.
It seems that if that sceptism and the willingness to explore other options has now been expressed to ministers, this is reason the Government has chosen now to flex its muscles.
The front page of the Times yesterday reported how Gordon Brown was going to “take money away from health and education budgets” to spend on new housing.
Ed Balls’s tough talking is a reaction to that.
This isn’t the last we’ll hear about this. Progress has been made in Leicester. Education bosses are understandably, yet privately, fuming.