A “SUPERHEAD” brought in to help turn around struggling schools in Oxfordshire has criticised the “narrow focus” on English and maths by which schools are judged.

Martin Lester, right, who has spent the last nine years going into struggling county schools and bringing about rapid improvements, said the current education system was “over-focused” on teaching English and maths.

He said: “It’s not just about English and maths and cramming children to pass tests and exams, there are other skills such as questioning and perseverance, which employers would be pleased to encounter from young people.

“There is an argument that factors other than high standards in English and maths are important and that is why some teachers feel the agenda against which schools are judged is becoming increasingly narrow.

“I personally believe we could achieve the high standards required through a slightly different approach to the one many schools and parents think we have to follow which rather over-focuses on the teaching of English and maths in isolation.

“It is a real dilemma between narrowing the focus down so much that it becomes turgid and may not be the most successful route to bringing about improvement which may be brought about by thinking in a broader sense.”

Mr Lester, a former member of the now dissolved schools improvement team at Oxfordshire County Council, is currently acting headteacher at Berinsfield Primary School.

The 62-year-old, who has worked in schools including Windale, Church Cowley St James and St Christopher’s primaries in Oxford, said English and maths could be brought into other areas of the curriculum. Skills such as ICT were “incredibly important”, he added.

But his criticism of focusing on the so-called “three Rs” provoked mixed reaction from education leaders across the county.

Education expert John Howson, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, said the emphasis on the three Rs remained important.

He said: “Children who cannot access the basics in numeracy and literacy are limited in how far they can go in educational terms.

“Functional literacy and numeracy are absolutely critical – however you get there.”

And council education cabinet member Melinda Tilley agreed.

She said she still wants to see every child achieving minimum levels of English and maths, adding: “If they haven’t got English and maths they can’t do anything else.”

However, Gawain Little, a primary school teacher at St Ebbe’s Primary School in Oxford and Oxfordshire secretary for the National Union of Teachers said he was in agreement with Mr Lester.

He said: “English and maths are absolutely crucial, they are the foundation of many of the things we do but they are not the only skills young people need.

“The skills employers are looking for include things like understanding how to learn from mistakes, resilience, how to research issues and how to work independently.

“It’s important people like Martin Lester, who are respected, do speak on this issue because there is a danger of us sleepwalking into what seem like common sense ideas but are actually potentially damaging to our young people’s education.”

Oxfordshire County Council is currently running a major campaign aimed at boosting reading levels in the county’s youngest children, backed by the Oxford Mail.

Oxfordshire performs broadly in line with national averages, but does not compare well to other similarly affluent counties.

Two years ago Oxford city was the worst in the country for Key Stage 1, and although there have been some improvements, it is still close to the bottom of the pile.


Martin Lester has been a teacher since 1972.

He was a headteacher in three primary schools before joining the school improvement team.

He was one of three experienced headteachers  deployed by Oxfordshire County Council to struggling schools – often with no more notice than 24 hours – to bring about rapid improvements.

Most were in Ofsted categories of notice to improve or special measures, but in some cases he was sent to schools that were thought to be having difficulties prior to their inspection, or needed additional support.

The team was part of Oxfordshire County Council’s strategy to reduce the number of schools in low categories and to improve provision and specific outcomes for children.

The team was disbanded in 2010. Mr Lester now works as a  consultant and has helped turn around the fortunes of more than a dozen schools in Oxfordshire.

Mr Lester helps schools in a variety of ways, depending on their size and specific requirements.
He can either step in to take over as acting headteacher or be a mentor to the current head.

Using his decades of experience in the profession, staff use him as a sounding board for ideas that could improve performance.

Mr Lester identifies areas of weaknesses and then oversees ways to deal with them.

This could include organising more teacher training or formulating action plans that list priorities the school should focus on. He guides schools in the right direction to solve their problems, but ensures they understand what is being done so higher standards can be maintained once he leaves.

St Christopher’s School in Cowley is one of the Oxford schools he has helped.

Headteacher Alison Holden said: “He helped us with our action plan, which I then had to take through until we were out of special measures.

“He started the process which had a huge impact on us, and helped us find our feet again. He was a great sounding board.”


Windale Primary School, Blackbird Leys, where he was acting headteacher. The school was removed from special measures under his guidance and subsequently judged good.

Dunmore Junior School, where he was acting head, was removed from special measures and subsequently judged good.

Church Cowley St James Primary School, Oxford, where he was acting head to oversee effective development. He also acted as mentor to the substantive head and deputy head.

Botley Primary School, where he was acting head, and led the school to a satisfactory progress judgment since being issued with a notice to improve.

Ducklington Primary School, where he was a mentor to the head and leadership team. The school was removed from notice to improve as a good school.

Berinsfield Primary School, where he is acting headteacher. The aim is to remove the school from special measures while overseeing conversion to an academy.