He was a high flyer working for the Government and regularly meeting with ministers, but Peterborough’s education chief has given it all up to try and improve schools results in the city where his career first blossomed.
Peterborough may have changed in the two years Jonathan Lewis spent away from the city, but one thing which remains a constant is the lowly performances in the school league tables.
In the time Mr Lewis spent at Northamptonshire County Council, and as a Regional Schools Commissioner deputy director at the Department for Education, Peterborough has had its own review into education and last year came second bottom for SATs and fell further away from the national average in GCSE progress and attainment.
All of this makes it harder to explain why Mr Lewis returned to Peterborough City Council six months ago as service director for education, while also taking on the same role at Cambridgeshire County Council.
“I had a great job working for the Department of Education. It was fascinating,” he said. “I used to sit in with ministers. I was seeing best practice everywhere.
“I came back because it is Peterborough. Peterborough gets under your skin, it’s a fascinating place. I wouldn’t have gone to a different local authority. This was a unique opportunity.
“It frustrates me - I don’t want to see Peterborough at the bottom of the league tables. My job is to push us forward, whatever it takes.”
There is no quick fix to the situation Mr Lewis said as he seeks to make ‘marginal gains.’
“We have to be realistic - we’re never going to be in the top quartile of results,” he said. However, we should be setting high aspirations.
“I see no reason why we shouldn’t be half way in local authorities. That’s where we should be aiming for.
“There are places like Newham - it’s the one place in the country which has more mobility than us. Why aren’t we aspiring to be as good as them? Why isn’t Cambridgeshire better than Hertfordshire? It should be, but it’s not.
“We measure the attainment of our children and we measure progress. We need to focus in on getting as much progress into our children. If we are in the top quartile for our progress measures that is phenomenal.”
The challenges in Peterborough are well documented and include high levels of migration and children with English as an Additional Language. But Mr Lewis insists he does not want to dwell on the difficulties, instead focusing on being “brave and courageous” to find solutions, including for the biggest headache of them all - how to recruit enough teachers.
“Having less children in front of teachers improves outcomes. If we can work on that it would unlock a lot of challenges we would face,” he added. “We have amazing teachers in our schools, but the numbers game is really challenging. I have to make Peterborough an attractive place to come to.
“Do I say to teachers ‘come to Peterborough because I can work with our schools and we can create less work for you because we’re not going to do marking the same way?’
“Or, ‘we’re going to give you more support around your planning so you don’t have to go home and do it and you can focus then on the children in your school’. Or equally, do we be really different about this? Do I look at offering something for teachers such as changing our term times? Other places have done it.
“Do I look at giving you two weeks in June so families can get away and do something different? Which might then say to people, what a fantastic place, there’s a real buzz around education. How do I come here and do that?”
Other topics discussed with Mr Lewis during our interview
Mr Lewis said his role was now about facilitation and bringing “best practice to Peterborough”, including teaching schools from London borough Newham.
He also wants to build on teaching schools in Peterborough - “Schools haven’t engaged fully in teaching schools, we’re not realising the benefit of working with them,” he said. Problems schools here face, he said, include a challenging health system as well as children living in temporary accommodation far away.
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent expanding city schools and building new ones which Mr Lewis said has provided “exceptional value for money”.
Mr Lewis would not be drawn on whether state schools, academies or grammars are better - “Status doesn’t improve schools. If a school wants to become an academy, if it makes the school better, I’m quite happy with that. If it doesn’t, don’t do it.”
Mr Lewis said high numbers of academies are not a barrier, and he highlighted “rapid” improvements at Queen Katharine Academy which he said has seen pupil behaviour improve.
Mr Lewis also praised St John Fisher Catholic High School as one of the top performing schools in the region for progress.