New head of Bristol schools targets primary places
THE new man responsible for Bristol's schools has pledged to focus on solving the city's primary places crisis and improving results.
Conservative councillor Alastair Watson has vowed to take tough action against under-performing schools and propel Bristol into the "top quartile" of the national league tables.
But he is under no illusions about the size of the task facing him - he sent his own children to a private school in Bristol in the 1990s because he had no faith in his local state comprehensive. And while he believes Bristol's schools have vastly improved over the last 10 years, he says there is still much work to be done to turn around the fortunes of the city's education system.
Mr Watson says his decision to send his two children to Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School in Clifton rather than Monks Park School in Horfield has given him motivation to succeed in his new role.
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The Westbury-on-Trym ward councillor, who was appointed cabinet member for children and young people's services by the city's mayor George Ferguson last week, said: "This is one of the things that drives me. When my children were of secondary school age, we were offered Monks Park. Like many parents, I then went without holidays and many other things to send my children to QEH because I wasn't going to send them to a school which I believed would potentially fail them.
"But things are so different now. If I had children coming up to the age of 11 now, there are plenty of good schools - Redland Green, Cotham and the Bristol Free School and some of the academies. There's lots of better choice.
"I think the independent schools are struggling and will find it difficult to compete these days, because the Bristol schools are offering such a good education compared to when my children were at school.
"In the past, parents in Bristol have also sent their children to places like St Katharine's, Marlwood and the Castle School in Thornbury but I think we are encouraging those parents back into Bristol.
"The main reason results were so bad in Bristol wasn't because of bad schools or bad teachers - but because children who were well-supported by their parents, who had aspirations for them, were being sent elsewhere."
Under his stewardship, Mr Watson said tough action would be taken against schools posting results below the Government's floor target. He has also promised to try and ensure every primary school-aged child could find a place at a school within walking distance of their home.
The councillor, the husband of an IT teacher, said: "I want to make sure the primary school places are there. I really believe that everybody should be able to walk to their primary school and that parents should get a school they want to send their kids to. Having to put kids in cars and taxis to get them to primary schools isn't right. The schools should be good enough that people want to support them within their own community."
On his pledge to improve school results and standards, he said: "I still think we have a way to go in secondaries and primaries - there are a number of primaries below the floor target in their results and there needs to be tough action with a number of those. That action includes turning them into academies and so on.
"We need to make sure the programme is being pushed forward and we need to bring in good leaders to take them over. I know Annie (Hudson, the council's director for children and young people's services) and Nick (Batchelar, senior education officer) are well on to this and it's something we need to keep pressing - I don't want to see any schools below the floor target.
"We want to bring the whole average up. We don't want to be average - we want to be in the top quartile."
Mr Watson, who was the Tories unsuccessful Parliamentary candidate for Bristol North West at the 2005 general election, has a wealth of knowledge about the city's education system.
He campaigned for a secondary school to be opened in his ward, served for two years on the council's children's services scrutiny commission and was education spokesman for the council's Tory group.
Mr Watson, who lives in Redland and formerly worked as a management consultant, has also served on the governing bodies at schools including Henbury School and Redland Green School. He now works part-time for Science City Bristol.