VECTIS VIEW: Ashley Whittaker – Director of Children’s Services, IW Council

It is a huge privilege for me to have started as the Isle of Wight Council’s new Director of Children’s Services earlier this year, and to have joined the Island’s community.

I arrive having previously worked in children’s services in London, and before that as a teacher and senior leader in schools. I made the switch from schools to local government in 2015, with a desire to understand more about how those children, young people and families needing extra help were best supported by agencies outside education, and since then have enjoyed the diversity of opportunity and challenge that comes with working across these partnerships.

Since relocating to the Island, I have been inspired by the people I have met. I have listened to the thoughts of children and young people, as well as parents and carers, on what they think are the best things about growing up here. They have also told me about what needs to improve and how things could be done better. I have listened to elected councillors, and adults who support children and young people across the education, health and social care sectors. Some of these people are volunteers who choose to commit time and effort to improve the experiences and life chances of others. Some work for organisations such as the National Health Service, schools and the police. The collaboration between voluntary sector colleagues and statutory partners is impressive, and vital in a system with less resource than we would like. Reflecting on the key themes of all these conversations, one of the most notable is the very significant ambition to make things better for our children and young people, and the shared optimism that exists about the opportunity we now have. It is up to us all to shape and deliver that future.

An example of this ambition is the vision, energy and determination displayed by colleagues across the education sector, where there is consensus that changes are needed to improve children and young people’s achievements and outcomes across a range of measures. Over several years the needs of children and young people have changed, and education provision must adapt to reflect this. The prevalence of special educational needs and disabilities on the Island has been increasing, and much is now known about the impact of the pandemic on the progress, emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. For more than a decade the demographics of the Island have been changing too, with a very significant reduction in the number of babies being born, and a corresponding subsequent decline in the number of children entering primary school. These changes in the needs and numbers of children require a corresponding adjustment and realignment of the school system.

This is why the council is currently engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, including children, young people and families themselves, to share information and collect views on what the future education system on the Island could look like. This week we have held public drop-in sessions in Newport and Freshwater, and there are events being held in Ryde, Cowes, Sandown and Wroxall over the next two weeks. More information is available in the news section of the council’s website – please do come along if you can. Aligning the school system to the needs and size of the Island’s population will require complex and difficult decisions. They are also important decisions that are essential to establish the foundations required to deliver a high performing school system, and to drive up academic and wider life outcomes for all children. By doing this we will be able to deliver on our shared commitment to fully unlock the potential of the children and young people that we serve and allow them to truly thrive.