Why Coventry schools may be a lesson in themselves

Image caption "Outstanding" schools in Coventry have partnered with failing schools in a bid to drive up performance

From zero to hero.

It sounds like the unlikeliest of turnarounds in fortune. And so quickly too.

Two years ago, the league table of local authorities whose primary schools were ranked "good" or "outstanding" by the schools inspectorate Ofsted showed Coventry had the smallest proportion in England.

Just 42% of the city's primary schools were ranked in the top two categories.

Ofsted reported that Coventry City Council's efforts to establish clusters of primaries to try to work together to improve their performance had had "a mixed response".

Which makes the figures for 2014 all the more remarkable. The contrast could hardly be more striking or more welcome.

They show that the proportion of Coventry Primary Schools now judged "good" or better by Ofsted has risen to very nearly 74%.

The Key Stage 2 test results for children up to the age of 11 were the best ever achieved in the city.

Before we get too carried away, they are still below the average for England as a whole.

But in a city with higher than average levels of deprivation and considerably higher than average levels of English as a second language, this amounts to a very significant example of improving on previous performance.

The cabinet member for education on Coventry's Labour-run council, David Kershaw, attributes this to a changed approach within shrinking budgets.

Having dispensed with the expensive services of more than 20 advisers, the council has engineered a new strategy, the Coventry Challenge, under which failing schools are "mentored" by outstanding ones.

Manifesto commitment

So could Coventry's experience serve as a role model for other towns and cities facing similar challenges?

The shadow education secretary and Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt certainly thinks so.

"Coventry shows that schools succeed most effectively when they work together in partnership and collaboration and, yes, that will be at the heart of Labour's schools policy and in our manifesto," he said.

To find out how exactly it works in practice, our BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Political Reporter Sian Grzeszczyk has been focusing on the experience of Clifford Bridge Primary School.

In 2011, it was put under special measures. In the September of that year, its head was replaced by a senior teacher from Walsgrave Primary School which was officially rated "outstanding".

The head at Walsgrave also became executive head of Clifford Bridge and their recovery plan involved teachers being shipped back and forth from Walsgrave to offer training and mentoring for their colleagues at Clifford Bridge.

Clifford Bridge is now rated "good" by Ofsted.

So what's new?

The idea of well-led schools helping to raise standards in less successful ones is not new in itself.

David Cameron has been just one of a number of high-profile visitors to Perry Beeches School in Birmingham where the "super head" Liam Nolan leads a partnership which now comprises three secondary schools and a primary.

What makes Coventry special is that the project has been rolled out on a single city-wide basis.

But this is not to say that everything in Coventry's educational garden is lovely. The improvement at primary level contrasts sharply with the fortunes of the city's secondary schools.

London University's Institute of Education reported: "Secondary schools in the city declined in Ofsted terms and in terms of overall attainment between 2012 and 2014 after several years of steady improvement, leaving them below national averages and in the bottom quintile of authorities nationally."

Image copyright Coventry City Council
Image caption Source: Coventry City Council

So why isn't the city doing with its secondary schools what it's already done for its primaries?

The institute's report goes on: "In general, the primaries are further ahead with this collaborative work. Several secondaries reported that the competitive contest is a barrier to deep, local collaboration."

Rivalries between secondary schools do indeed run deep.

It would also be a challenge for any local authority to build city-wide strategies in these days of academy strings, free schools, cooperatives and partnerships.

The days of the local authority monolith are long gone. Tristram Hunt describes it as "atomised and fragmented".

But whoever is in government, it seems this much more pluralistic system, with its array of school options for parents and children, is here to stay.

Which sounds like the cue for a political debate.

On Sunday Politics at 12:25 GMT on BBC One in the West Midlands on 9 November, we will be joined by shadow children's minister and Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak Steve McCabe, who will be alongside Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon Nadhim Zahawi.

I hope you will join us too.

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