Perhaps the most worrying thing about Bradford is the continuing underperformance of the District's schools - certainly relative to other local education authorities (LEAs). This problem isn't a new one - back in the 1990s we saw the same situation and the Council then found the fault in Bradford's three-tier system of schooling and abolished middle schools. Ofsted then piled in and produced a damning assessment of Bradford's performance, closely followed by government education ministers who insisted that the Council outsource its LEA functions (this was by this point, of course, a Labour government minister insisting a Conservative-led council outsource the LEA functions).
We then had about ten years where it was, shall we say, convenient for the Council to suggest that the continued poor performance of Bradford's schools (they did get a little better but not by much) could be blamed on Serco who had won the contract to deliver those outsourced LEA functions. Towards the end of those Serco years a new excitement fell onto Bradford's education bureaucrats and the councillors they advised. We were bringing education back in-house - for at least three years the planning for this process was the obsession of the local leadership and, once complete, everything would change as we could deliver a 'step change' in the District's schools.
We're now nearly five years into this time of excitement. The LEA has been under the same political leadership - the same person - since 2010 and the situation is that, as the local paper reported, results at 16 have declined leaving Bradford joint second bottom with Blackpool in the ranking of LEA performance.
The percentage of Bradford district pupils passing at least five A* - C GCSEs, including English and maths, fell from 53 per cent in 2013 to 44 per cent in last summer's exams.
The results leave Bradford tied with Blackpool in joint second bottom place, with only Knowsley in Merseyside faring worse.
The statistics, published yesterday by the Department for Education, show that 16 Bradford schools have fallen under the Government's "floor" standards, which require at least 40 per cent of students to get five or more A* - C GCSEs including English and maths.
We all know that this is unacceptable (or I hope we do) and Bradford's education leadership has adopted a plan to improve attainment - here's a quote from the introduction that suggests a degree of complacency:
“The Strategy was revised from the one published in June 2012 after we carried out a detailed analysis of data and it also follows discussions with leaders of school partnerships and governing bodies. This revised Strategy has a focus on accelerating our improvements."
So between 2012 and 2014 our performance got worse - across almost every measure. It's not clear at all what improvements there actually are to 'accelerate'. To give the plan its due, in its bureaucratic way it sets out actions the Council and its "partners" will be taking - recruiting the best leaders, having every school good or outstanding by 2017, targeting underperformance, annual visits to schools, improving governance, sharing local best practice, and targeting underperforming groups.
What is missing from all this is any acknowledgement that Bradford doesn't have the knowledge, skills or capacity to deliver the ambitious targets set by the Council. Setting targets is easy but there is little confidence that Bradford's schools will actually meet them - and, as one of the targets is still to be below average but not as below average as we are right now, the targets aren't exactly earth-shattering.
There are some things we know - mostly about what doesn't affect performance. We know that whether the LEA services are delivered in-house or by a contractor makes little or no difference. We know that focusing on Ofsted assessments of school quality doesn't reflect in performance outcomes at 16. And we know that increasing resources available to schools isn't the issue - school spending in Bradford has risen by some £70 million since 2010. Moreover up to 2013 not reductions had been made in central LEA spending either.
This leaves us with several other factors. The first is ethnicity:
Putting in place additional resources to support our work with underperforming groups. We are currently revising our strategy to respond to high levels of pupil mobility and a significant increase in the number of pupils and families who are not only ‘new to English’ but also ‘new to education’, with a focus on 15 Primary Schools with mobility at or above 15% (the District average is 8.4% for maintained schools).
We are constantly reminded of how many different languages Bradford's students speak with the implication that somehow this is part of the reason for underperformance. All those foreigners coming here with their children speaking a funny language drags down performance - it's a sort of perfect UKIP argument. One that has no supporting evidence, indeed the opposite seems to be true:
...now new research suggests there is a much simpler, single, reason for a decade of improved GCSE results in the capital: London schools do better than the rest of England because they have a higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils.
The report by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at Bristol University argues that the diversity of the capital's population is a key reason for the "London effect" because ethnic minority pupils tend to achieve higher grades than those from a white British background.
Back in 2011, 67% of pupils at London's state schools were from ethnic minority backgrounds - the figure for Bradford was 43%. Tower Hamlets with 80% of its pupils from such backgrounds was 30th in the LEA rankings in 2013 compared to Bradford's 140th. For an even more stark comparison nearly half of pupils in the London Borough of Redbridge are Asian - and in 2013 Redbridge was the 11th best performing LEA. There is nothing to suggest that Bradford's poor schools result from having a large proportion of ethnic minority pupils.
So if it isn't the organisation of the LEA and it's not ethnicity then what is the problem in Bradford's schools? We are told to look to London and specifically the London Challenge as a model for improvement. And leaving aside the evidence suggesting a changed ethnic mix is the main reason for London's school improvement, this approach provides various interventions that affect outcomes:
The CfBT argues that five key interrelated factors were “critical to London’s success”. It cites the London Challenge school improvement scheme, improved performance by some local authorities, the academies programme, Teach First and good leadership.
Now there has been talk about a 'Bradford Challenge' but this rather misses the point. London has 32 LEAs across a very varied set of demographic and social circumstances and while Bradford District is a big place, London is nearly twenty times bigger. Worse still the District's education leadership is inward-looking - there is nothing in the attainment strategy about reaching out to other places or programmes, just a relentless, bull-headed Bradford machine approach (coupled with a frantic flapping around looking for other things to blame for the problem).
If we look at West Yorkshire, there is the capacity for such a programme but the two high performing LEAs (Wakefield and Calderdale are both in the top 30 nationally) will need persuading to co-operate with the two poor performing LEAs (Bradford and Leeds). This suggests several options.
The five authorities could agree a joint approach and pitch for resources to the Department for Education to deliver a 'West Yorkshire Challenge' in schools with the programme run on much the same basis as for the London Challenge. I've no idea whether the money would be forthcoming (although the tendency of political leadership in Bradford's education to focus on attacking the government rather than improving education won't help) but it would be worth a punt.
An alternative route would be to turn the Combined Authority's 'strategic economic plan' on its head and shift resource from (I would argue) pretty ineffective short-term labour market interventions into a long-term school improvement programme backed up with resource from each LEA budget. This would require the self-interest of some of the partners on the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to be set aside but would have the advantage of being a wholly locally-owned project.
In addition, Bradford needs to look very closely and critically at leadership in the local education sector. A warts-and-all approach would examine the leadership of the LEA, in schools and in the various bodies that make up the education system. We need to be prepared to intervene to supplement weak leaderships through executive head programmes and, if needs be, through strengthening the accountability mechanisms in schools. We need to look at the recruitment of leaders - this is part of the current plan but simply appointing Schools Recruitment and Retention Strategy Lead Officer isn't the solution. Again we must be prepared to resource the recruitment of better head teachers - there's a very competitive market for the best heads and right now Bradford isn't getting a look in when it comes to getting these people to come and work in our schools.
Lastly, Bradford needs to be more creative - actively supporting new free schools rather than setting obstacles in their way, sitting down with the leaders in private sector education - Bradford Grammar School is one of the best schools in the country and this isn't just down to its intake - and drawing on the best governors at the best schools to help drive the programme. And instead of grumping about academies we should think about how to learn the lessons from the best of them - both in Bradford and elsewhere.
It don't know the answer to the question I posed in the headline - why do Bradford's schools do so badly. And I get no real sense that the political and professional leadership in the Council are any closer to the answer than I am. What we can't afford is to carry on either trying to find excuses or else simply doing more of the same over and over again in the vain hope that somehow it will work this time. It's time for something to give.