City of Wolverhampton Council's Citizenship Language & Learning Senior Advisor, Mark Smith, discusses the challenge that many local authorities (LAs) are facing of delivering a quality educational experience while also having to deal with budget constraints.
Recently, I was recruiting for a new member of my team. The candidates were all middle or senior leaders and answered the teaching and learning questions with expertise and confidence. However, one question, they admitted they had real difficulty with:
"The team is required to generate its own income, what skills or experiences can you bring to this?"
This, in a nutshell, reflects the challenge for an LA Team which no longer receives mainline council funding: How can you continue to make a difference to learners whilst being a business and requiring to balance the books. Two completely different skill sets.
When I first went into EAL work at a Local Authority level in 2009 there were many thriving LA EMAS or equivalent teams and it was the home of much shared great practice. Tower Hamlets were launching their Progression in Language Scales, and Bradford their Talking Partners, to give just a couple of examples. When I returned (after a stint in Ethiopia) in 2014 (this time in Wolverhampton), it was a very different story.
Teams had shrunk, converted to the private or third sector or completely disappeared; austerity had kicked in.
Four years later, it is a similar (or even worsening) story.
The challenge is even greater as the current government seems to favour Teaching Schools as their medium for school improvement so funding opportunities often favour them. Although they have a part to play, in my personal experience in the West Midlands, I have yet to find any which have successfully addressed EAL issues. The need is still there and unmet and there remains a role at an LA level.
In Wolverhampton, we have and are (touch wood) managing both to continue to make a difference to EAL students whilst being a "business" and balancing the books. The key has been to adapt and diversify.
- Diversify your offer to schools - the pedagogical side: In 2014, when I arrived, we were the EAL and New Arrivals Team; now we are the Citizenship, Language and Learning team with a real focus on literacy. Back in 2014, we quickly realised with the new English curriculum there was a huge gap in SPaG knowledge and skills in primary schools which EAL experts had the expertise to fill. As the new OFSTED framework comes into place, there is clearly going to be a focus on narrowing the vocabulary gap (cross-curricular); again something we clearly have expertise in. In 2017, our schools with high EAL asked us to do a reading project to try and support KS2 SATS reading. Our schools with high white working class quickly responded saying the issues are very similar and that they wanted to be in on the project. They were right and we managed to successfully impact both.
- Diversify your income sources - the business side: In 2014, the team was purely funded through DSG top-slicing (which the schools have to agree to). This, as more and more schools have academised, was clearly not going to cover costs. Four years later, we have various other income streams. Academies and out-of-LA schools buy in: if you can evidence impact, schools recognise the need. We have accessed grant funding for projects and work; for example, the government's horribly (in my personal opinion) titled Controlling Migration Fund.
So for us, that is the challenge. Being a business and making an impact. But I believe and I hope we never take our eye off what really matters: children and their learning.