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A Question for School Leaders: What are you prepared to do?

As schools worry about the downgrading of exam results by Ofqual, Rescue Our School’s David Taylor questions the relentless drive to get good grades.

“Kids have given up their weekends, we’ve had holiday interventions, 7:30am revision sessions, teachers teaching until 7pm”, said one headteacher as he vented his utter frustration at government’s shallow promise that no student will be disadvantaged by the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE examinations.

After taking over as headteacher last February, the school was predicting that its Progress 8 would rise from -0.62 (well below average) to +0.93 (well above average). Such a turnaround in fortunes in a school would see it designated amongst the most improved schools nationally and it would rocket up the league tables. The Regional Schools Commissioner would be satisfied and together with the support of the associated headteachers’ board would deem that the school would not be subject to a loss of independence and a takeover by an academy sponsor. Ofsted would come along in the near relatively near future and, baring some extraordinary circumstances, would give it the customary “Outstanding”. Reputation enhanced; the school would be become more attractive to potential parents. The future would be secure as it could be in the crazy world of our education system.

The head’s frustration that this is unlikely to play out is because new rules this year will mean that the grades allocated to the students will be based on a standardisation model that will consider the expected national outcomes for this year’s cohort, the prior attainment of the students at each school – at cohort not, individual level – and the results of the school in recent years. The fact that the “the kids have really grafted” will potentially count for nothing.

I empathise with him. In 2005 I became headteacher of a struggling school. Results were low – 15% 5+ A-C grades including English and Maths. Improvements needed to be made. We changed the curriculum, making it more responsive, meaningful, and engaging. We improved learning and teaching, and slowly but surely, we got to the lofty heights of 60% in 2016. We became TES Secondary School of the Year. It had taken 11 long years of hard graft by all concerned.

From memory, it is during the early part of my headship that the use of the term ‘intervention’ became the ubiquitous method for quick fixes. What had historically been a few voluntary revision sessions after school, started, in an increasing number of schools, to morph into a data-driven cottage industry of interventions. It was to become like a scene in “The Untouchables” when Jim Malone (Sean Connery) asks Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner): “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Whilst it is rather extreme to use this metaphor in the context of schools, it does accurately portray the fact that schools are competing more than ever before because of league tables and academisation. This drives schools to increasing levels of interventions to better their peers. “They do before school, you do before school, lunch and after school. They do Saturdays, you do weekends. They do paid for additional tutoring twice a week, you do it three times”. When will it ever end?

Now sees an opportunity to rethink our very purpose. Covid has removed education league tables for 2020. They should not return. They drive competitive practises. They drive aggressive practises. Schools are about collaboration, cooperation, and a sense of community. In the words of Jim Malone: “What are you prepared to do?”



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