The trouble with schools is they are set up to make some people feel they have failed. I’m getting older and possibly not wiser as I struggle to hang on to my liberal values. I’ve tried everything, I really have with regards to setting young people off to a good start in life. In my last blog, I described our drive to personalise learning and curriculum provision in the hope that we can help everyone achieve their full potential, but as I explained, it is such a difficult thing to realise and fraught with moral dilemmas; many of which do challenge the liberal idea of education.
When I consider the schools I’ve led, either as a Deputy or Head, I’ve struggled to get above 50% gaining 5A*-Cs including English and Maths (I’ve been teaching in Wales since Progress 8 came into play in England, so the A* – C measure is still my benchmark). Maybe at a push, if I’d stayed on for longer in some of my schools, I might have attained 60% at the very most. Who knows? These schools (four of them), as with all the schools I’ve taught in, have been located in very deprived areas where anything above 40% is well above national expectations, and so maybe I should pat myself and my colleagues past and present on the back, for doing a good job. Or should I?
To achieve these results, I’ve fallen into a stereotype which applies to the vast majority of Heads and Principals up and down the country; I’ve been a slave to accountability measures (I genuinely take my hat off to those who resist this – I know there are some out there). As a result, we haven’t really achieved what I feel the purpose of schools should be – to equip young people with skills, confidence and wherewithal which enables them to go on and flourish in life. Before I attempt to describe why I don’t think we’re doing this effectively enough, it’s worth looking first at school accountability in more detail. Bear with me on this, I will get to the point eventually.
There has always been some degree of accountability for schools. The unannounced visits by the district inspector are something I can vaguely remember teachers mentioning when I was a pupil. It was all light touch up until 1988 (the year I started teaching) when Education Act at came into force, bringing in the National Curriculum. It was the first time schools lost their autonomy and were told what to teach. There had been a decline in standards in schools resulting in a definite need for accountability, and it soon became the buzz word to use. Not too long after the Introduction of the National Curriculum, OFSTED came thundering into schools. I was in one of the first schools to have an inspection, and we failed spectacularly. This resulted in a succession of Heads in the school trying and failing to pick up the pieces. My first impression of accountability, needless to say, was not a positive one.
I first became aware of GCSE results being analysed at a whole school level, when walking into school one day (I think around 1992) and noticing a sheet of A4 on the front door, with a line graph showing the percentage rise for those gaining 5 or more A* – Cs. The race was on . . .
In the intervening years, schools have improved, there’s no doubt about that, but have they really improved for everyone? O Levels/GCSEs and their equivalents were initially in place to give Post 16 providers and employers a straightforward way to assess the capability of potential Post 16 students or employees. Later on, it then became a simple, convenient way to measure the effectiveness of schools.
From then on, we have thrown at our students (especially those in Year 11) every bit of intervention at our disposal in a desperate attempt to show a year on year increase in attainment. Woe betide any school or more specifically any Head/Principal that has a drop in attainment, two years in a row. The curriculum time that all schools have, along with the expected homework we set, is not enough it would seem. Hence the reason we see no alternative but to continually look for ways to provide interventions in the form of additional classes, smaller group work, 1:1 tutorials, the list goes on.
You could argue that this drive has stimulated personalised learning, as we strive to create better ways to support all of our students. I wouldn’t disagree with this, but then again how effective and sustainable are these interventions and do they really have a lasting impact? In my own experience the more interventions we give students, and the more we manipulate their curriculum to achieve the highest possible grades, the less able they are to succeed at the next level when they go onto Post 16 courses. For example, students we succeed in pushing to achieve the Level 2 (A* – C) benchmarks are not necessarily able to manage a Level 3 (A Level or equivalent) programme of study. The same applies to those we push to achieve Level 1 and go on to Level 2. Are we providing a crutch for the student? The short-term interventions we have put in place for the young person are not lasting or sustainable; the underlying skills or knowledge are not embedded and secure.
It’s unfortunate that schools in deprived areas have to continually play catch-up to close the attainment gap, between students from lower and higher income families. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has carried out an extensive analysis of how effective schools have been in closing the attainment gap and do note an improvement for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, they also accept that the rate of improvement is slow and will take decades for the gap to close. In short, the interventions we are putting in place have some impact, but it’s not enough, and it would seem that if we put in more intervention, it doesn’t really help the pupil in the longer term.
The last three paragraphs above highlight something for me; they highlight how distracted we all are (including myself) from the real elephant in the room, namely – how we recognise and measure attainment and progress at 16. We all continually think of individual attainment and school performance in terms of how well our pupils perform at 16. We do this automatically; it’s hardwired into us and we don’t question it. As mentioned above GCSEs are a very efficient and relatively simple way to compare pupils and schools. But we’re certainly not simple as a species. We develop at different rates, we have different starts in life, and we have different cultural backgrounds which all combine to form a variety of needs, tastes and interests.
A bit more controversial, but I’m still waiting for someone to convince me otherwise, we certainly seem to be wired differently and we are born with different strengths/dispositions. The nurture/nature argument is an ongoing one. Current research claims that babies are born with different temperaments which interplay with the environment within which we are brought up. If neurodevelopment in utero or early childhood is disrupted, this may affect the molecular processes responsible for future emotional, behavioural, social and physiological functioning. However, in early adolescence there is a window of opportunity to repair neural connections caused by trauma experienced in early years (and possibly the womb).
With this in mind, it is vital that we develop positive personalisation strategies in school that help to re-stimulate brain development. We need to extend these strategies to re-evaluating the worth of KS4 qualifications, the comparisons we make using these qualifications, and how we use these as measures of accountability. It creates a negative, unproductive culture in schools and can ultimately detract from any positive input, to nurture young people during this critical window of opportunity
Finally, I struggle to find ways to enable over 50% of each cohort attaining the Level 2 benchmark. However, I believe we could guarantee almost all of our students leaving school on meaningful progression routes, at the correct level with guaranteed employment opportunities, (if they decided not to follow an academic path). I can’t do this at the moment in our current structures across the UK). If I could, the solutions would challenge my liberal values, but perhaps it would be the right thing to do?
In my last blog, I’m aware that I promised I’d discuss the solutions in this blog. Apologies, I’ve gone on a bit and you need a break. Next time . . .