Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Acid test sours Challenge

Acid test

The prime minister's enthusiasm for the National Challenge shows just how little the government understands the education system. But what's worse, says John Dunford, is that by using such a crude indicator, the government is ensuring that thousands of students who need support are losing out.

"The relationship between the government and teachers is based on trust and understanding. They don't trust us and we don't understand them."

I confess to having used that joke on more than one occasion. After all, the old ones are always the best and this one invariably gets a good reaction. The joke contains the scintilla of truth that makes it uncomfortable as well as funny. When he was schools' minister and in self-deprecating mode, David Miliband used it (with attribution). Perhaps he now uses it to describe our relations with the French, or indeed any number of foreign countries.

But did I get it the right way round? Or would it be nearer the truth to say that there is neither trust nor understanding in either direction?

I have often written about the low-trust model on which the government has based school and college accountability and which appears to underpin the regulatory climate in which ASCL members have to lead their institutions.

If it moves, the government regulates it. If it can be turned into a statistic, it becomes part of the accountability framework.

Lately I have become more worried about the level of understanding of our work among those who govern us.

The National Challenge, with which schools with less than 30 per cent A*-C GCSEs were pilloried in May 2008, presents a classic example of lack of understanding, especially in relation to the many secondary modern schools on the list. Even the National Audit Office has now criticised the use of threshold measures such as 30 per cent, or five A* to C GCSE passes, or two levels' progress, to judge the performance of a school.

Take three schools. Let's call them Acacia Comprehensive, the only school in its town, and Begonia Grammar and Camellia Secondary Modern, the only two schools in their town. The two towns are similar socio-economic areas. Acacia has 60 per cent of its students with five A* to C passes at GCSE, Begonia has 95 per cent and Camellia has 25 per cent.

Under the National Challenge, Camellia has had a terrible time in the local press and, in the minds of local people, is threatened with closure in 2011. Year 7 intake numbers have fallen as a result. The head's job is on the line. Extra resources will be pumped into Camellia to help it improve its results.

The educational performance of students in the two towns is the same, but only one school is under threat and is being given additional funding.

But there is to be no additional support to raise the achievement of the 40 per cent of students at Acacia and the five per cent at Begonia who have done worse than the 25 per cent at Camellia.

The lack of understanding that GCSE performance is primarily about students, and that low achieving students deserve extra support wherever they are educated, permeated the National Challenge policy. The timing was equally insensitive, upsetting many young people as they walked into their GCSE examinations.

The 400 million targeted at National Challenge schools is a lot of money, but it is questionable whether these funds are being used in the fairest or most efficient way. It's another example of lack of understanding that funding for initiatives like this skews an already arcane funding system and moves us further away from the activity-led fair funding model that ASCL has advocated for so long.

Prime minister's threat

In his speech to the Labour Party conference in September, the prime minister pledged to keep up the pace of reform, guaranteeing to parents the "fundamental right" that they "should see their children taught in schools which achieve good results at GCSE. Any parents whose local state school falls below the expected standard will have the right to see that school transformed under wholly new leadership, or closed and new school places provided."

It is very difficult to understand why, in a speech with the theme of fairness, school leaders should - along with the Conservative party - be the only group to be criticised by the prime minister.

It is unjust - and the criticism is based on a lack of understanding of the moral purpose that brought education leaders into teaching and which drives them every day to try to raise students' aspirations, especially where these are very low, as in many of the communities served by National Challenge schools.

Maybe his words were based on political concerns - to adopt his phrase, voters whose government falls below the expected standard have the right to see that government transformed under wholly new leadership. That's called democracy and, if you go into politics, you understand the system and you know about its unfairness; you can be an outstanding MP and still be swept out of parliament if your party falls out of favour.

But schools are different. And school leaders should be treated differently. If they are incompetent then, as in any walk of life, they may well lose their job. But the National Challenge is not about rooting out incompetence. It sets an arbitrary threshold and, if your institution - for whatever reason - falls below it, the prime minister, no less, has said that you may be swept aside.

As I said in the ASCL press release that day: "Schools in these circumstances will not be turned around by threats from the government and they certainly will not be turned around overnight. The leaders of these schools need targeted, sustained support, not increased pressure."

Rest assured, ASCL will have a lot more to say about this as it defends vigorously the interests and careers of its members in these schools.

Parental complaints

The day after the prime minister's speech to the Labour conference, the secretary of state in his address expanded on the rights of parents and announced a consultation on a new complaints appeal procedure. Does the government understand the sort of complaints that schools have to deal with or the way in which parents complain to outside agencies when they have only heard their child's side of the story?

I accept that it is not sensible that parents who are in conflict with a school have to seek redress via the secretary of state. ASCL favours a referral process within the local authority which would consider whether the school has followed the correct procedures. But do we really need yet another new system change, when far more problems are caused by frivolous or vexatious complaints from parents than schools dealing with complaints badly?

ASCL immediate past president, Brian Lightman, commented that he would love to introduce ministers to the parents who had been complaining to him in that same week. One objected to his disruptive child being removed from a lesson so that the others could learn because he has 'oppositional defiance disorder' and therefore can't be expected to follow rules.

Another has written simultaneously to him, the chair of governors, the local Welsh Assembly member, a solicitor and the local authority pupil support service before waiting for any replies or actually meeting with anyone in the school to discuss a simple matter which could have been resolved in 15 minutes. "Nothing unusual in that" would be the response from many ASCL members. We need ministers who understand this.

I wrote last month about the huge number of changes that school and college leaders have to put in place this academic year. Again, I am convinced that ministers do not understand what each of these changes involves and how difficult it is to introduce all of them simultaneously and make them effective.

Nowhere is the lack of understanding greater than in our testing system and its effect on children's education. In an insightful article on the National Education Trust website (www. nationaleducationtrust.net) Professor Colin Crouch of Warwick University Business School has written about the link between the problems in the financial markets and the testing regime, with its associated league tables.

At the root of both is the lack of understanding of how one part of the system affects another. Share prices, like league tables, are not the substantive part of the commercial system, but only an indicator. Yet it is the indicator that drives behaviour, not the substantive commercial or educational rationale.

I ended last month's Leader article by stating that it is in the best interests of the government to help us to maintain our focus on high quality teaching and learning and that the acid test of education policy is whether it helps or hinders that process. It is also in the government's interest, as well as ours, that policies are based on real understanding.

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