SCHOOLS in Basildon should take a bow. A year of rapid, sustained improvement by the Basildon Excellence Panel has seen primary schools lifted from the doldrums after making great strides forward.

Prior to the panel’s creation in 2014, seven Basildon primary schools were rated as inadequate by Ofsted and a further 14 were regarded as requiring improvement.

Just 18 months on and there are no longer any inadequate primary schools in Basildon and just eight which require improvement.

Now, the focus is on secondary schools which are the biggest challenges facing education in Basildon, according to a former chief inspector of schools.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, who leads the Basildon Excellence Panel, has seen massive changes in primary schools in the borough and now has his eye on secondary schools.

“The biggest challenge is the question of performance of secondary schools in Basildon,” says Sir Mike. “There are discussions with the schools about them joining the panel and I hope they will and we can work with them, but at the moment, many of the parents are sending their children out of the area.”

With primary schools going from strength to strength, the former Ofsted chief says it’s understandable many Basildon children go out of the area for their secondary education.

He said: “Pupils are improving more and more in primary schools so it’s understandable when it comes to secondary schools that their parents want that to continue.”

While talks remain ongoing, work continues in the borough’s primary schools.

The panel has worked alongside Essex County Council and Basildon Council to transform six infant and junior schools into three primaries – an approach they believe will benefit pupils, schools and the community.

Kingswood Infant and Junior Schools have been merged to form Kingswood Primary School, the Len Wastell Infant School and Pitsea Junior School have been amalgamated to create Maple Grove Primary School, and Northlands Infant and Northlands Junior Schools have combined to form Northlands Primary School.

Sir Mike said: “There are a number of benefits, first it will give parents the security that their children can continue throughout the primary system without changing school which should give greater continuity to the education they receive. It will, I hope give options to staff in a larger school.

“The improvement is down to the hard work of teachers and headteachers in the schools and a lot of the support networks we have put in place for them.”

The Basildon Excellence Panel was set up as a school-led partnership to introduce a new way of working across the town’s primary schools.

It works by encouraging Basildon town's 32 authority-run schools and three independent academies to work together and share good practice, with successful schools supporting their underperforming neighbours.

Weekly phone calls to each school are followed up by personal visits from the panel’s members – all former Ofsted inspectors and teachers with decades of experience – to schools in need, a formula that Sir Mike says works.

He said: “Each school is approached with schools in difficulty being given more time and there is a weekly phone call with each school to see if they have got any problems or need help with anything in particular.

“It’s very important for the schools to have a support network around them and it means any difficulties, we can just step him.

“For now, the panel is something Essex has decided to stick with and there are two other areas who are ready to roll it out.

“What’s important is giving recognition to the headteachers and governors of the primary schools and the work they have put in over the last year. They’ve really done a great job.”

Despite the improvements, challenges remain with issues surrounding recruiting and keeping teachers in Essex, which is very similar to the national picture, as well as making sure the borough’s youngsters are actually ready for school.

“There’s been a lot of work done on the pre nursery stage and to give pupils help to get into and be ready for school,” says Sir Mike. “They were finding a lot of pre-school children unable to put on their shoes or tie their laces or hold a pen or a knife and fork and there’s been a lot of work around that to support them to make sure they are ready for school.”

In the long-run the borough is hoping to produce teachers of its own who have a love for the job.

Sir Mike said: “The focus now is to continue improving and accepting more and more of the best teachers in Basildon.

“Recently, there’s been an issue with recruitment across the country, but the fact is we are not producing enough teachers and we know how important this is.

We’ve seen teachers leave after three or four years in the job.”

Between 10 and 20 per cent of staff in Essex schools are “imported” from overseas, with Canada and Ireland supplying many staff. Last year 50,000 teachers left the profession nationally.

Sir Mike said: “For some, it’s a case of disillusionment with the job, in other cases it’s family circumstances.

Primary school teachers are largely women and then we are faced with the needs of them expecting children and so on.

“In Basildon, we have a training school and that alone has 30 trainees and we are training our own.”