If I ever come across a school where the governors and head teacher can’t be bothered, the senior leaders are bone idle, lazy and ineffective and the teachers couldn’t give a monkey then close it, academise it, sack the lot. But that isn’t my experience.
“Shining a Light on Complacency”
I want high standards in all schools and by all staff for all students. Now having all agreed that we want the best for schools, staff and the pupils in them we just need to determine how best to achieve this. We’re not arguing about what we want the debate is how best to achieve it.
My flabber was well and truly gasted this morning to read that any secondary school below 60% five good GCSEs and who fail to make above average levels of expected progress in English & Maths, from Key Stage 2 to 4, will be classed as coasting. The expected progress changed to Progress 8 in 2016 and will be fully replaced by it in 2018.
In primary schools, if fewer than 85% of 11-year-olds achieve a level 4 in reading, writing and maths and fail to make expected progress in reading, writing and maths, between Key Stage 1 to 2, then you’re a coaster.
The good news first, no-one’s going to call you a coaster until 2016 as rolling three years of data will be considered initially from 2014, 2015 and 2016. Schools have to be below the bar in every one of the three years and in each element to be coasting. Also the definition is likely to evolve, it’s unlikely to be set in statute as this is too unwieldly to change, and consequently there is an opportunity to influence it over time, as they say.
The challenge is uneven with some schools coasting to 60%+ five good GCSEs – can’t imagine too many grammar schools or those in affluent areas losing sleep tonight – whilst for others attainment at 40%+ or 50%+, still below the threshold, would be a massive achievement and in no way complacent. The challenge will increase with many more schools likely to coasting when the new GCSE grading comes in and a “good pass” is 5 (top end of the current grade C/lower end of B). The challenge will be greater the more disadvantaged your intake is or if it has low prior attainment. Statistically these adversely affect both your progress and attainment measures. Schools in challenging situations will be held accountable for problems society hasn’t yet solved. As schools we are part of the solution but making it increasingly unattractive to work in challenging areas won’t help.
Imagine if this morning’s announcement had heralded a £100,000 per annum for a decade support fund for coasting schools with a mid-point review for any school identified as coasting. For the first five years you have a named HMI and executive leader/national leader of education to work with you. If you’re not making progress after five years you will be required to join a hard federation or multi academy trust. Or instead of being refused an outstanding grading by Ofsted related to whether all students are doing the E-Bacc you can’t be considered outstanding unless you have above 20% (random threshold by the way) of the school’s pupil population entitled to pupil premium. To be outstanding the pupil premium children also have to achieve highly. This might see a change in the distribution of disadvantaged children in schools, designation of national leaders of education and teaching schools status. Different solutions but still aimed at system wide school improvement.
No School in the Bottom Quintile Thinking
I’m no statistician but I’m going to go out on a limb in the security that Professors Dylan William, Robert Coe and Tim Leunig won’t be reading this. Next year I predict that when the data dashboard is released for your school there will be 20% of schools in the bottom quintile. Pushing the bounds of my statistical crystal ball gazing a further 20% are going to hit the top quintile and this is going to happen for years to come.
Further my powers of fortune telling predict that between 65-70% of students will get a grade C or better in GCSE Mathematics this summer and similar for GCSE English. These “pass marks” won’t change much until 2017 when the new grading system will lead to the “good pass” falling. The percentage of schools getting 60%+ five good GCSEs will plummet further.
The problem with so many of the benchmarks we use is that the examination system builds in limits to what is actually achievable. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, it just is. The political narrative of no school or child below average and get above 60% or 85% or else, with pretty much fixed pass rates, is becoming rather tired. It sounds good in some quarters but if we want to be really aspirational our metrics have to change to be sensitive to genuine improvements, or regressions, within the system.
The Academisation Distraction
I worry that I’ve hit the phase of life best described as grumpy old man but I’m beginning to think all the froth and angst of the coasting school and academisation programme is a well-timed diversion from the concerns of shortage of school places, a teacher recruitment crisis, shrinking budgets and incoherent curriculum change. I know, call me a cynic, but a good distraction at this moment in time is politically a great idea. If we could find some evidence that academies have a positive impact on achievement even better.
For some in the profession this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, particularly in more disadvantaged areas, for others it will just bring the breaking point a step closer.
It’s Time to Walk the Hard Miles & Walk the Hard Miles
Schools and the people who work in them are committed, well-meaning and want the children and young people in their care to do well. It’s time to walk the hard miles again. If the government genuinely believes that academisation is the only way forward for school improvement then organise the conversion of all schools, in alphabetical order, over the next five years. Whilst I disagree with this it has a simple honesty and transparency about it that appeals to me. We formed a multi academy trust nearly a year ago as one of the schools in our family was under pressure. It suits us but then our previous hard federation arrangement between St. Mary’s and Christ the King had the same benefits of deep partnership which I believe is a crucial part of the school improvement journey.
The hard miles we need to walk are increasingly clear to us. Transition from primary to secondary schools means too many students take a step back before they move forward. We are now all over this with primary and secondary teachers working together to make the curriculum sing of greater progress at the transition point but also asking some hard questions about progress within each phase. Our children can’t afford for us to stall, as John Hattie says, “One year’s input must equal one year’s progress”. For many of our children we need to do better than this. Nowhere more so than in early years with so many children entering behind age related expectation. Alongside redefining what excellence looks like for each group of children, some really interesting work around assessment – find out what they don’t know and teach them it – is making a lot of sense. We’re seeing impact in terms of greater progress and staff are embracing it as the bleedin’ obvious. We’re making the shift to teachers’ work within the class room being informed by data, feedback, research and their own and colleagues’ experience. These are hard miles but great fun and hugely satisfying. These are the hard school improvement miles.
People ask but what about coasting academies? If such a beast actually exists, they can be moved from one trust to another so the illusion of improvement can be maintained even if no impact is actually being made.