Islington Council needs something akin to divine intervention to
turn around its tarnished reputation on education. Britain’s most
influential citizen, the Prime Minister, refused to send his children to
And last month saw the publication of a report by education watchdog
Ofsted which said the council’s Local Education Authority (LEA) had lost
the confidence of the people it serves.
The council’s report card makes grim reading. The number of Islington
16-year-olds acquiring five or more GCSEs graded A-C is half the
national average, and the cost of certain education services to the
people of Islington are in some cases double the national average.
Education is now a battleground between central and local government,
and the consequences for councils which lose that battle are dire.
Hackney was heavily criticised for its record on education in September
1997 and the ensuing year-and-a-half drama, which saw Hackney privatise
part of its LEA under duress, resulted in the departure of chief
executive Tony Elliston earlier this year.
In a similar case, the Government forced Calderdale Metropolitan Borough
Council to appoint a new headmaster to the infamous Ridings School after
the school was shut down and Ofsted carried out an emergency report in
Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett has
pledged his department will carry out inspections of all education
authorities by 2001. But Islington’s response to the Ofsted report is
worth examining because it seems to be working.
The strategy has been to eat humble pie and accept the need for partial
privatisation of the LEA, and the council has seized the communications
initiative. Rather than merely responding to media enquiries, it has
hired lobbying and media relations agency Westminster Strategy to sell
WS was called in ten days before the report was published last month,
initially to limit the damage caused by negative media coverage. The job
has now become strategic, particularly as council PR chief Jennifer
Powell is leaving to join management consultancy Towers Perrin.
WS has effectively taken over Islington’s communications function on a
temporary, two-month basis. This is the first time, at least in recent
years, that an external consultancy has been given such a wide-ranging
brief in a local council large enough to employ its own staff. The
agency has also been asked to review the structure and responsibilities
of the communication department.
Two WS staffers work part time in the department, supplementing the six
members of Islington’s communication unit. Unlike Powell, who reports to
Islington’s director of information Valerie Vaughan-Dick, WS deputy
managing director Mike Lee, who is leading the account, has insisted on
working directly with chief executive Leisha Fullick.
Islington chose to pre-empt any demands for privatisation by the
Government and has drawn up plans to effectively put its LEA out of a
job by having a joint venture company run education services. But
despite appointing PriceWaterhouse Coopers to draw up the plans to
contract out key services, it still faces the tricky task of convincing
the Government and media that things have changed. It is this task which
will ultimately prove WS’s worth to the LEA.
’Islington’s education service is the most visible aspect of its image
problem, but it goes much deeper,’ comments one local government
’The borough’s poor services across the board means it needs Westminster
Strategy to improve the council’s general standing.’
Lee doesn’t deny that Islington council’s bad image goes beyond
education, but insists it can be rectified.
’The borough suffers from a perception gap. Some of the services need
improving and that is what will count with residents. But the situation
is not as bad as its image suggests.’
Lee firmly believes the trend for councils to improve management of
services by contracting them out should be extended to the
But not all boroughs feel their PR function needs bolstering. Carol
White, director of education at Calderdale, is bracing herself for a
third Ofsted report, scheduled to be published in July. When White took
up her role in February, Calderdale had already been the subject of two
negative reports due to Ridings School.
’It is hard to turn around perceptions of the Ridings,’ she admits. ’We
had an instance recently with a personnel issue at the school which hit
the headlines purely because it was the Ridings.’
But she believes she and her colleagues can handle any media attention
the report will bring without outside help. ’We are confident it will be
a good story this time, but we’ve all had extra media training anyway,’
Others are dubious of the help local councils can find in external
communications experts. Neil Fletcher, education, leisure and tourism
head at the Local Government Association, which advised Hackney and
Calderdale, says: ’Many councils are investing in their own
communications people, principally to make local residents more aware of
’Bringing in outside consultancies to help spin a detrimental story into
a good one is another matter. Like central government, local councils
should be transparent in all their dealings. PR shouldn’t come between
the council and voters.’
But if Islington is to restore confidence in its schools, it will
undoubtedly need both educational reforms and PR skills.