Exclusive: Councils chiefs hit back over Ofsted criticism of primary school results in Yorkshire

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COUNCIL CHIEFS in Yorkshire hit back after an Ofsted director wrote letters to town halls across the region branding the performance of the area’s schools as “weak and inexcusable.”

Previously unpublished documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show nine local authorities received almost identical letters demanding action over schools in their area from the education watchdog’s regional director for Yorkshire.

The letters from Ofsted’s regional boss Nick Hudson highlighted test and exam results in which schools in parts of Yorkshire lag behind the national average and it demands council chief executives come up with answers to address this.

However the Yorkshire Post can also reveal the letters resulted in a backlash from several council bosses who responded to say they were unhappy with the way the criticism was made and the fact that Ofsted had sent almost identical letters to the nine different councils.

One council boss said Ofsted would need to discuss ways of “repairing the damage” caused by the letter.

The authorities which received similar letters “expressing concern and disappointment” at school results were Barnsley, Bradford, Doncaster, Hull, Leeds, North East Lincolnshire, Rotherham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

The letters were sent weeks before Ofsted’s national chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw suggested that a lack of political leadership was to blame for school results in poor performing areas of the country.

The councils across Yorkshire criticised in Mr Hudson’s letter all responded setting out detailed plans to improve standards and also insisting that pupils’ results were a high priority.

One chief executive also hit out at the “lack of context” in the Ofsted criticism. The strongest response came from Leeds City Council which was singled out for criticism of its primary schools - despite having the highest proportion of good and outstanding primaries in Yorkshire according to Ofsted.

The letter raised concerns about standards being achieved by six-year-olds in the phonics check and in tests sat by pupils at both seven and 11-years-old which were said to lag behind the national average. Mr Hudson concluded all nine letters saying that standards were weak and that this was “frankly inexcusable.”

In his reply Leeds City Council’s chief executive Tom Riordan described Ofsted’s letter as “surprising and emotive.”

He said: “Eighty per cent of all Leeds schools and 91 per cent of primary schools are judged to be good or outstanding which places Leeds top in the Yorkshire and Humber region... in addition the city’s children’s services were judged ‘good’ overall and outstanding for leadership and management earlier this year; an inspection you were personally involved with.

“These two factors alone indicate a city that is improving rapidly. “ He adds that the council was disappointed to receive a letter quoting raw data out of context quoting raw data out of context and says: “I was also surprised to learn that most of my colleague chief executives across the region received strikingly similar letters, almost indistinguishable from the Leeds letter.” He signs off by saying: “I welcome our forthcoming meeting to discuss how we can repair the damage caused by this letter and rebuild our previously positive relationship.”

Mr Hudson who is the Ofsted regional director for Yorkshire and the North East replied to saying: “I appreciate that, from your perspective, receiving my letter without notice created a number of logistical difficulties, especially as it was copied to all Leeds’ Members of Parliament. I will reflect on whether I should adopt this approach, when considering future correspondence to local authorities.

“I fully accept that children’s educational success is at the heart of Leeds growth strategy, and that you are personally committed to promoting improvement across Leeds schools.” He described a subsequent meeting between him and Mr Riordan as constructive.

Hull City Council’s interim chief executive Matt Jukes also issued a strong response to the letter from Mr Hudson.

The city’s primary school provisional results for 11-year-olds showed 79 per cent of children getting to the expected standard in the three Rs - one per cent below the national average. However the final results published in primary school league tables actually showed the city surpassing the national average with 81 per cent of pupils making the grade - meaning the city was the most improved in Yorkshire climbing more than 40 places in national league tables.

Mr Hudson’s letter criticises Hull’s performance across primary and secondary school.

Mr Jukes replied telling Mr Hudson that the results quoted in the Ofsted letter was something he was “acutely aware of.” He then adds: While none of us are satisfied by the results at any of the key stages there are some elements where there is real progress, that needs, I think to be acknowledge before a blanket condemnation is given.”

He also says “Similarly I was disappointed by your comments about our key stage two results. Compared to some years ago, our schools have worked hard, along with this authority, to seek continuous improvement and to be virtually at the national average is I believe a credit to the schools,”

He adds that the improvement in primary school results should translate into secondary results as the children progress. However he also acknowledges that the city’s current GCSE results were disappointing.

Barnsley Council’s chief executive Diana Terris’ reply to Mr Hudson says that she shares his concern that “education performance is not yet good enough and that Barnsley young people are disadvantaged by poor education outcomes. However she voices surprise that Mr Hudson’s letter did not acknowledge a meeting which only took place a few weeks earlier between him and his team and council officials in which they were “frank and transparent sharing early results and reflecting our collective view that the pace of improvement needs to be accelerated.

Bradford Council’s chief executive Kersten England replied to say that her first reaction to the letter was one of “surprise and concern” adding that the “very challenging tone seemed at odds with our recent and very constructive discussion.” She also alludes to the fact that she and others had concerns about the approach taken in the Ofsted letter before setting out Bradford Council’s plans to raise standards.