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Accountability, Leadership

The Great School Improvement Hoax

It’s unsurprising that behaviour is a hot topic on Twitter; people’s different beliefs, experiences and knowledge all play a part.  I am no different.  My experience is rooted in twelve years in the classroom followed by fourteen years of headship.

During the latter I would made the final decision about whether a pupil would be excluded, fixed term or permanently.  It’s much harder to make these decisions in real life than on social media.  It would often mean, particularly when making a determination about a permanent exclusion, judging complex issues and competing demands.  As ever Twitter tends to turn the complex into the binary.  Debates about booths, fixed term and permanent exclusions, off rolling, elective home education, managed moves and the creation of sufficient pressure to move a pupil down the road to another school become both intertwined and viewed in isolation.

Photo Credit: Bob~Barley Time via Flickr cc

“Effective and just” provide part of the necessary tension needed in any behaviour system.  We need systems that work in limiting poor behaviour and promoting good behaviour; are reasonable and proportionate in response to an incident and a series of incidents over time.  Each of the approaches above could fulfil these criteria or compromise them.  We should not damage individual children on the basis of what is best for the class or school community; they are part of the community.  However, nor can we allow a pupil to continually disrupt a class or school community.  We must not overlook the impact of our actions on the wider community of schools within the locality.  Balancing these rights and responsibilities is part of the everyday practice of good teachers and school leaders.

My on-going concern is there are a few schools/trusts that are using a combination of potentially reasonable approaches in an unreasonable and unethical way.  It appears, alongside finding courses that are easier to pass than the bulk of GCSEs, they have a greater tendency to remove a number of pupils from their roll, particularly in Key Stage 4.  They seem to be able to do it with impunity, sometimes even being praised by Ofsted or ministers for their robust approach, and to their advantage in performance tables.  The pupils removed are often the most vulnerable or lowest attaining.  It’s one of the great school improvement hoaxes of our time.

Pupils isolated for extended periods, large numbers of fixed term exclusions, parents given options between permanent exclusion or elective home education or moving their child to another school with places becomes part of a systematic pretence of improving a school.  The standard line tends to be about turning a school around, blame for the previous incumbents and rigorous high standards; the problem is that the “off rolling” behaviour in a few schools/trust becomes a standard way of operating.  It happens continually over many years whilst they manipulate their intake; it’s not a short term strategy to re-establish good order.

The most useful and important school improvement strategies are effective, transferable and scalable.  If every school was allowed to remove 10 – 20% of their lowest achieving pupils we would all be able to tell the papers what record results we had achieved this year.  The difficulty at a practical level, this would lead to over a quarter of a million young people moving out of mainstream secondary schools.  This would dwarf the current numbers which are already causing so much concern.  A solution, not perfect but a huge improvement on what we currently have, would be to make schools proportionately accountable for time pupils spend on their roll and subsequently in Alternative Provision, Elective Home Education or not on another school’s roll.  This is not a late to the party idea but one that has been proposed for years but not yet implemented.  Let’s hope the Timpson Review provides the necessary momentum.

The other great school improvement hoax is that we actually have one; we don’t.  The last one was “making a school an academy and everything will get better”; daft idea and hopeless strategy but at least there was one.  More or different inspection seems to be the only current idea; cue more foreseeable but perverse effects – on-going recruitment and retention difficulties, everyone rewriting curriculum documents (to present to inspectors instead of data) and too much dodgy or ineffective professional development about the curriculum.  Just me or is it time for a fundamental rethink around school improvement?

By the way, a bit of strictness is by no means a new idea.  The Rule of Benedict written fifteen centuries ago called for a little strictness out of love.  The key is the driver; love for the individual out of love for the community.  It was never about simple compliance for St. Benedict; rather using the rule to develop a way of living. The strict set of rules actually has a softness that allows exceptions and permits rule bending, as long as it leads to the way of life.



2 thoughts on “The Great School Improvement Hoax

  1. As a Governor I have never been an advocate of ‘gaming the system’ but I agree with you that it appears to be overlooked or even encouraged by those driving ‘improvement’ strategy.

    Another game that is either overlooked or encouraged is the ‘hot house treatment’ given to Y6 pupils and even Y5 nowadays where good education is sacrificed and pupils spend an inordinate amount of time learning how to improve their Sats scores by doing a constant stream of past papers. This may well bring kudos to the Primary School but the pupils are then presented with progress hurdles at KS4 that they can’t clear.

    Posted by denissmith2 | December 16, 2018, 7:58 am
  2. This scandal can not continue. Good schools, I mean the truly good schools, are inclusive, they nurture, children are valued and respected. These are the schools damed in print and by OFSTED for their data, they are judged to ‘require improvement’ or worse. It takes brave management to stick two fingers up at the politics and focus on what truly matters- quite simply the education of our young people IN SCHOOL. I know it’s tough and for some children alternatives are needed, they are necessary but at all times THEIR NEEDS need to be at the heart. Shame on the manipulating, heartless, individuals contributing to this scandel. Let’s bring them to account and publish the number of off-rollers, permanent exclusions, elective home-schooled and ‘managed moves’ alongside the ‘results’.

    Posted by Alison Randall | December 17, 2018, 9:31 pm

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