Transforming education at Walsall
Before Walsall's education services were compulsorily outsourced to Serco on the instructions of the Secretary of State for Education, Education was a failing directorate in a failing council. Following two failed Ofsted inspections of the LEA and an aborted CPA Corporate Governance inspection in 2002, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council was perceived as the worst council in the country. Walsall LEA's Ofsted inspections in 2000 and 2002 both identified significant weaknesses in education services, rating them as '7' or 'Very Poor' - the lowest rating on a scale of 1 to 7. All aspects of LEA performance were weak and, as a result, there was underperformance across the whole borough. A large proportion of schools had been placed in the special measures, serious weakness or under- erforming categories and pupils were being failed. Even some statutory obligations were not being met.
The transformation began in December 2002 when Walsall Council appointed Serco to take on the delivery of all education services, including the transfer of all education department staff, on behalf of the LEA. We knew we had to move quickly. Our first priority was to establish effective leadership and management. We appointed a confident and capable leadership team. This brought together extensive skills and experience gained in other councils and the private sector with the best of the skills and experience in Walsall. We also started to build a strong partnership with the reformed council. Working in partnership was to be an important part of the success of the LEA as we progressed. Next, we tackled the LEA's relationship with its schools. Recognising that previously the LEA had not accepted schools as equal partners, we involved them in decisions about service development and new ways of working that would better meet their needs without encouraging dependency. Service delivery improvements had to be both immediate and sustainable.
We undertook a root and branch reorganisation to ensure that progress would be based on sound systems. We focused on supporting, challenging and inspiring schools to raise achievement levels, removing any obstacles in their way. This meant integrating services that had until now operated in silos and adopting best practice in all service areas. Due to the urgency of the situation we recognised that we would need to take calculated risks in developing new initiatives and better ways of working to transform Walsall at a faster rate than would normally be the case.
Throughout, we worked collaboratively with the schools, involving them in shaping their own destinies and celebrating successes along the way. Vital to the whole process was our very close and effective working relationship with the council, through which we ensured together that Councillors were freed up to focus on policy and strategy, whilst we made the professional decisions on how to put them into practice. At all times, we worked towards shared objectives which were regularly reviewed.
Our partnership approach paid off. When Ofsted carried out a reinspection in October 2004 they found a "spectacular improvement" in the service. They judged improvements since the last audit to be Good (2), up from Very Poor (7) just two years earlier. Capacity to improve was also rated Good (2), compared with Poor (6) and current performance was described as Highly Satisfactory (3), up from Poor in 2002. Ofsted's findings were reinforced by the views of head teachers in the 2004 Audit Commission's annual survey of services, which reported massive improvements. The view of this head teacher was echoed by many when she said,"The quality of support and its focus has improved substantially. As a head teacher for 16 years in Walsall I am, for the first time in many years, feeling some effective support, but also challenged to ensure continuous improvement both in my school and through supportive networks in the borough as a whole." Serco provides a wide range of services that help local authorities transform their operations to make efficiency gains and achieve strategic goals. Numerous councils throughout the UK rely on our expertise and breadth of experience to help them deliver higher quality services to the citizen at lower cost.
'I now feel there is someone fighting for education in Walsall and supporting schools in providing quality education for our children.'
Head teacher at a Walsall primary school