One doesn’t want to name drop, but it seems like only yesterday that I joined city council leader Mike Whitby in the office of then Schools Minister Lord Andrew Adonis to talk about Birmingham’s exciting plans to turn several under-performing schools into new city academies.
To say that the two appeared to get on splendidly would be something of an understatement. It was Andrew this and Mike that and splendid Birmingham showing us the way, you’d have never guessed that Adonis was a Labour minister and Whitby a Conservative council leader such was the saccharine-fuelled schmoozing in the room.
But it seems now that Adonis was merely putting it all on. He appeared to be charm itself on the surface, but deep inside the man must have been seething with anger at what he saw as Birmingham’s wanton refusal to grasp his academies plan and run with it.
All became clear this week when Adonis delivered the annual Lunar Society lecture in Birmingham and proceeded to launch an astonishing attack on the state of the city, which he contended was in a crisis, suffering from poor leadership and facing a bleak future.
So far so entirely unexpected, since Adonis has repeated a number of times his mantra that Birmingham requires a directly elected mayor to generate strong leadership and that we should do everything we can to grasp the economic benefits offered by high speed rail.
But it was on the subject of academies that Adonis grasped the knife and twisted it deeply into Birmingham’s Tory-Lib Dem leadership, in particular into the back of cabinet education member Les Lawrence and the city’s former education director Tony Howell.
Here’s a flavour of what the former Schools Minister had to say: “Promoting big reforms to transform secondary education in the city has been like pulling teeth. I cannot tell you how much agitation, and how many difficult meetings it took to persuade the city council, particularly the children’s services department, to engage half seriously in the academies programme.”
He went on to remind his audience that Ofsted found the council’s Children’s Department to be failing, although this jibe was somewhat unfair since the inspection referred to social care for vulnerable children and not to the state of schools in Birmingham.
The remainder of his comments were on far safer ground, a magisterial statistical denunciation of the council’s snail-like pace in developing academies. Only nine per cent of Birmingham’s schools have either attained academy status or are on course to do so compared to 28 per cent in Croydon, 53 per cent in Southwark, 38 per cent in Hackney and 42 per cent in Bristol.
Adonis went on to point out that average secondary school performance in Croydon and Southwark was well below Birmingham six years ago but, thanks apparently to the boost given by academies, these councils now perform above the national average as far as GCSE results are concerned.
You might reasonably ask why Adonis did not publicly reprimand Birmingham when he was in charge of the country’s education system and therefore in a position to do something about the city’s woeful performance.