PORTSMOUTH’S new head of education has launched a four-year drive to lift the city’s under-performing schools above the national average.
Former teacher Di Mitchell has already visited 35 schools where, together with headteachers and governors, she has helped create strategies for the future.
For those struggling, the immediate task is to raise standards. Others doing well are being encouraged to share good practice with their neighbours.
And the 57-year-old mother-of-two is confident that within four years all schools will achieve exam pass rates above the national average.
It is an ambitious claim considering the current good GCSE pass rate is 13 percentage points behind the England average.
Mrs Mitchell said: ‘There’s a view that schools in the city are not as good as they should be and we have a responsibility to change that.
‘I believe it is possible. It’s all about high standards, good teaching, good learning and making sure you know where each child is. Secondary schools have a legacy of underachievement but that is changing.
‘Heads and teachers believe, as I do, that every school should be a great school which helps children reach their full potential.’
Mrs Mitchell is under no illusions about the pressures schools are under with budget cuts, tougher Ofsted inspections and a secretary of state who is constantly raising targets.
And while local education authorities nationwide have been pared back to a bare minimum, she sees her department as vital to supporting school improvement – with the power to carry out inspections and even ask the government to intervene.
She said: ‘The goal posts have changed and we have to be ahead of the game. We have to know which schools are in danger of letting children down and act.
‘If you are a satisfactory school you have to improve.
‘It’s going to be tough on heads who will have to make difficult decisions about who they employ and who they keep. Only good teachers need apply.’
Mrs Mitchell is not afraid to speak her mind – she approves of the government’s high exam benchmarks and welcomes a range of schools including academies to attract ‘outstanding practitioners’ and create choice.
She would also like to make languages compulsory for GCSE to help school-leavers compete in a global market.
‘Portsmouth is a great city with good schools and good teaching, but it tends to be a bit patchy’, she said. ‘By working with schools I think we will make a difference.
‘This is not about finding a one-size-fits-all solution – every school is on a different journey and I’m here to help.’
Mrs Mitchell has a strong track record of school improvement which bodes well for the city.
Her previous job was director of learning and engagement in Bournemouth where in four years she helped every failing school achieve above benchmark GCSE pass rates.
Mrs Mitchell started her teaching career here at the age of 19 when she moved from Guernsey to train at Portsmouth College.
Her first teaching job was at City Girls in 1975, where she taught English, art and history, before moving on to Baycroft special school in Stubbington.
Mrs Mitchell later joined Hampshire County Council where she helped schools with special needs and specialised in the use of IT in the classroom.
She said: ‘If you start out in teaching it gives you a passion to make a difference.
‘I share a common language with schools which helps me understand what the issues are and how progress can be made.’