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Time to Find and Compare Schools – Start Now

As the festive cheer begins to fade, schools start up again this month.  Staff and pupils arriving in the dark and often going home in it as well.  Following Christmas, the January pay day can seem a long, long way away.  But, it isn’t all doom and gloom; schools can look forward to the annual performance tables later this month.

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Justifying Your Key Stage 3 Curriculum

With the first set of Ofsted reports out, for the new Inspection Framework, some of the ideological oddities are beginning to be exposed.  We’ve seen the ideological Ofsted before.  Previously it was active learning and group work with limited teacher talk.  Now cultural capital, powerful knowledge and knowledge rich dominate; cultural bankruptcy, weak knowledge and knowledge poor are out.

It’s now obvious the two year Key Stage 3 must be justified.  Even when it is it will be damned in pursuit of greater curriculum perfection.  The three year Key Stage 3 requires no such justification.  If you’ve ever wondered about the rationale for the latter it’s simple; based on the five years of secondary education minus two years for GCSE, hey presto, the three year Key Stage 3 makes irrefutable sense.  It’s simply the number of years between leaving primary school and when students are expected to start their GCSE syllabi.

Many people don’t see a 3+2 curriculum model; they see a five year secondary curriculum progression model.  For those of us working in all through schools or trusts, the progression model is thirteen years or fifteen, as we have a Sixth Form.  The three year Key Stage 3 is totally arbitrary, cliff edged thinking.

Curriculum time is finite; there is a tension between depth and breadth in the limited time available.  Inevitably there are trade-offs.  For example, in many schools Design Technology – food, resistant materials, food and graphics at St. Mary’s – is taught as a circus in Key Stage 3.  A number of different subjects covered, in about 5% of curriculum time, giving breadth but limited depth.  About a decade ago we changed our Key Stage 3 curriculum plan, since reviewed, to what we believed works best for our students. 

Our solution was to keep greater breadth in Years 7 and 8; students studied a wide range of subjects but for a limited amount of time with many subjects like History, Geography, Music, Art, Drama and Design Technology getting just an hour a week.  Seeking greater depth in Year 9, we allowed students a limited choice; leading to students studying fewer subjects for a greater amount of time to a greater depth.  

All Year 9 students must study subjects from a range of disciplines:

  • English, Mathematics, Science, RE, a modern foreign language, general PE and PSHE form the core. 
  • Students’ first choice is between History & Geography (humanities choice);
  • Their second choice is between the various creative subjects – Art & Design; Design Technology; Music; Drama and then
  • A third choice allows a second humanities or creative subject or computer studies/ICT to be chosen. 

It is broad, balanced and allows students to tweak their curriculum a bit, towards what is most relevant to them.  GCSE options are chosen midway through Year 9, with a broader number of pupils on offer; commencing at the beginning of Year10.

One key principle in our decision making was that the curriculum was balanced.  It saddens me to see that Ofsted does not require students to study a balanced curriculum, at either Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 3.  It is a retrograde step as we seek to educate the whole person – the intellectual, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, emotional and physical development of all.

The new inspection framework shows limited cognisance of the challenge of working in the most disadvantaged areas with the additional curriculum time that is required to support students with literacy & numeracy.  A quick unscientific twitter poll showed the time afforded to English & Mathematics varied from 20% up to 40% of the curriculum time available at Key Stage 4.  Something has to give; either fewer subjects are studied at GCSE in Years 10 & 11 or more subjects can be studied through a “long thin” approach, starting in Year 9.  The issue is exacerbated by examination syllabi that lack focus and have been stuffed to overflowing.

What particularly concerns me about Ofsted’s emerging approach is their obvious limited context knowledge.  You see it with their clumsy approach to the E-Bacc which goes something like this: an academic curriculum is a good thing; the E-Bacc is an example of an academic Curriculum; ergo, that makes the E-Bacc a good thing for all pupils or some arbitrary percentage you want to make up.  Wild correlations about the percentage of students following the E-Bacc and senior leaders aspirations sees the bludgeoning weapon of high stakes accountability in action.

The inspectorate seem unable or unwilling to comprehend the narrowness of their current view of education or the varying levels of difficulties schools have in finding and employing modern foreign language teachers to enable the E-Bacc.

Whilst I sense that there have been some really good subject thinkers and people with strong domain knowledge contributing to the new Education Inspection Framework; it’s screaming out for a contribution from those whose had experienced different contexts and the practical wisdom of people who have wrestled with the construction of a school’s timetable.

An Alternative View of Humanity

The best of Alternative Provision is a joy to behold.  They take children and young people battered by life, rejected and in some cases further damaged by their mainstream experiences, slowly piecing them back together; supporting them as they move on in life. 

Some children and young people make bad choices and continue to do so until they are permanently excluded.  However, our colleagues, in Alternative Provision, are far more likely to deal with the disadvantaged, vulnerable and traumatised.  These children and young people need the unconditional positive regard and clear boundaries found in the best of Alternative Provision.

Behaviour has always been an emotive subject in schools.  Teachers face the daily reality, for better or worse, of classroom behaviour.  Parents experience it through their children who perpetrators or victims, sometimes both.  It can be too easy for those of us in senior leadership positions, if divorced from the daily maelstrom of the classroom, to look back with rose tinted glasses or forget the level of challenge poor behaviour can bring.  However, on occasion, a system wide view is needed with respect to the expectations and drivers that are shaping or may shape future responses to poor behaviour.

There are schools who deal with a level of demand from their community they cannot meet alone; any support has dried up as austerity has bitten deep.  They maintain orderly and safe communities including through the use of exclusions and working in partnership with Alternative Providers.  It’s all too easy for some to point the finger at them for off-rolling.  The idea that the permanent exclusion is in the best interest of the child or the process provides a secure route for parents to argue their case is the product of a middle class mind.  For some of our most deprived and disadvantaged families it provides nothing of the sort; they lack the capacity, confidence and capability to use the system. 

There are schools that need to turnaround a situation where poor behaviour has become endemic and rightly needs challenging.  Inappropriately, this can be used by schools who, long after the “turnaround phase”, continue with high levels of exclusion.  See, if we remove all our difficult pupils, who aren’t doing very well, then our results are really good.  Their intention appears more cohort change; the manipulation of the performance tables and the inspectorate.  Their unnecessarily high exclusion rates become a proxy for school improvement to the detriment of their own school and most certainly those in the locality.  I wonder whether these schools have been doing this for so long it has become habitual; they have actually manged to convince or confuse themselves that it is appropriate and right.

Whether they are zero tolerance, warm strict or schools that don’t particularly name their approach to behaviour, we have a few schools with substantially higher numbers of fixed term and permanent exclusions than all or similar schools.  In these cases, exclusions are not related to levels of deprivation; schools with very similar numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have dramatically different exclusion rates.  Some of these schools are part of Trusts who continue on their chosen path of high exclusion rates in the full glare of publicity and limited accountability.  Their view is that the most challenging children and young people are someone else’s problem to sort.  

The current moves by the Department for Education to increase investment in Alternative Provision could be applauded or damned depending on the purpose.  A substantial investment in high quality provision – not all Alternative Education is good or even fit for purpose; buildings, training and staffing would be welcomed.  Alternative Provision suffers from opaque and differing funding.  In contrast to teachers pay, no additional funds are provided to meet the salary increase of the many support staff employed in Alternative Provision putting massive pressure on their budgets.

The concern would be if the policy aims to simply provide for ever higher levels of permanent exclusions; above that which is reasonable.  Working for the common good isn’t simply looking after the majority; it’s also about preferential care for the most vulnerable and poorest in our society.  In essence, the levels of permanent exclusions we are prepared to accept is inextricably linked to our view of humanity.  Is Alternative Provision there to provide care, support and education for those who need greatest nurture or part of a high stakes punitive system?

In any forthcoming election, education – and accountability with its impact on retention, recruitment and workload of teachers – will be front and centre stage (Brexit aside).  The exclusion culture in some schools needs a counterbalance; held in tension by the accountability system. 

Headteachers Roundtable has long expressed the view that schools need to be held proportionately accountable for any pupils who attends their school.  At a secondary level, imagine if 40% of a pupil’s GCSE results are credited to the school s/he is attending on the October census in Year 7; add 5% a term all the way through to the October census in Year 11.  This provides the tension required.  We would most likely see a sharp dip in the number of pupils suddenly disappearing out of mainstream state schools in Year 10 and Year 11, prior to the third Thursday in January.  In primary schools, where the issue is less pronounced, starting with the October census in Year 3, schools are held proportionately accountable for 10% of a pupil’s results per term s/he is in on the school’s role.

Passing on the responsibility, for our most vulnerable, disadvantaged and challenging children and young people, as a school, system or society will not end well.  As equity dips, people diverge and a more fractured and confrontational society is formed.  Ultimately, we won’t be judged on our latest Progress 8 or combined RWM score but on how we treated those in greatest need, in our society. 

Educating with Purpose – The Heart of What Matters

Liminal Leadership


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