If there is one thing Birmingham schools, pupils and parents have had quite enough of in the last few months, it is criticism, uncertainty and speculation of what might or might not have gone wrong in the city.
Some of the judgments which are being made should be challenged, but others deserve to be taken seriously.
Birmingham must take a long hard look at itself. There is much to be proud of.
We have an outstandingly diverse community. Many of our schools are beacons of excellence. But there have been shortcomings, and some things must change.
The question of the Trojan Horse allegations is subject to a separate inquiry. Whatever the outcome, it is worth remembering that turning Birmingham’s Muslims into a suspicious community, as happened to the Irish in the 1970s, neither helps nor solves anything.
Nevertheless, with or without the Trojan Horse allegations, this city could have done better educating some of its children for a number years now.
When I became an MP in 1997 there was a whole tranche of head teachers who described themselves as the “Brighouse intake”. Every school knew they were part of the Birmingham family.
I had some of the best state schools and some of the best selective schools on the patch. Six years ago one of my secondary schools had slipped to become the third worst in the city.
Nothing was done for years until finally the education department bit the bullet, removed the leadership and brought in new management, albeit under the academy model.
One year might not matter much in the life of an adult, but for a child, every single year of bad education matters. It’s pretty difficult to catch up if this part of your life has gone wrong.
Everyone has an agenda. Michael Gove didn’t want the academies model to come under attack. I have no reason to assume that his successor Nicky Morgan will be any different.
Michael Wilshaw from Ofsted sounds as if he intends to serve Birmingham’s head on a platter with a note saying – “Only Ofsted can sort this out”. The city council complains that it has little control over schools and wants to rebut the idea that breaking up Birmingham is the answer. Not forgetting Lord Warner who has been brought in as a commissioner to put Children’s Services on an even keel.
There is only one proper agenda. How do we ensure that all the young people of the fastest growing youngest city in Europe get an inclusive, balanced education, are properly safeguarded and equipped to take on the jobs which are coming into Birmingham?
This matters everywhere but even more so in a city where almost a third of its population is of compulsory education age. They are Birmingham’s future and the wellbeing of the city depends on them.
What is to be done?
The city council may have lost many of its legal powers over schools, but it has not lost the civic responsibility to create a framework enabling its schools to be part of the city-wide family of Birmingham schools.
It matters not whether it’s an academy, a free school, an LEA school, a church school or King Edward’s School – you are a Birmingham school.
The extreme fragmentation we have seen here has not happened in other places.
Other authorities were more agile in working with the grain of central government, even when they didn’t much like the direction of travel. The sheer numbers involved make it more difficult for Birmingham, but not impossible.
The council has the power to convene.
Let’s start by bringing heads and chairs of governing bodies and parent governors together and ask them what support they are looking for.
Let me hazard a guess at what they might come up with...
Better support structures when a head feels the governing body is being unreasonable.
More networking with other schools to strengthen governor’s skills and problem solving abilities.
Readily accessible information for parents when choosing a school.
A single phone number for heads, governors and parents when they think something is going wrong at their school which can’t be resolved internally.
A person at the end of that phone line which listens and acts, rather than notes and processes.
For every one of these suggestions there will be someone shouting: “But we are already doing this”.
True. But the problem is not that we aren’t doing good things, it’s that there is no glue that holds the whole of Birmingham together. The good things, now done in isolation, have to reach the whole city. The city council has a civic responsibility to be the convenor of the Birmingham family of school. If they don’t do it, academy chains, trusts or other groupings will step into the vacuum.
In 2013 the Labour Party went into the local election with a promise to create a Birmingham Baccalaureate.
The BBacc would build on the fundamentals of the English Baccalaureate, add links with local employers and embed the principles of employability. The system has been piloted with ten local secondary school and is ready to be rolled out city wide. Young people are skilled and ready to take up local jobs. It’s just one initiative, but it’s a start.
Rather than look for others to be blamed, let’s do more to restore the cohesion of Birmingham schools and put the young people at the centre of the debate.
* Gisela Stuart is Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston