Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Making the grade?

A++ writing on a wall

Awarding schools an overall grade as part of the report card will continue to distort people's perceptions of whether a school is 'good', argues Bob Wolfson. Other options, such as a licensing system should be considered.

When we choose to board a flight or a train, we generally do not know what the quality of the pilot or driver will be. We put our trust in her or him on the basis that s/he has been effectively trained in the first place and is regularly quality assured.

Indeed, we might ask what the effect on plane passengers might be of a tannoy announcement on the lines of: "Welcome aboard, I am you captain for today and you will be pleased to know that when last inspected I was judged to be satisfactory, with some good features, and one key area of improvement identified. That was aircraft landing."

In the commercial world, by contrast, we can judge as consumers on the basis of quality and price, or as investors on the basis of performance and share price. We know broadly the difference between Waitrose and Aldi but the decision on whether to shop at Morrisons or Sainsbury's may have more to do with location than quality.

In the school report card consultation paper we have the proposal that schools should be measured by a wider range of indices. A number of grades will be given, and then an overall grade for the school may be awarded, it is assumed but not stated, on a scale of A to E.

In some cases, it is easy to set objective criteria that are open to relatively little interpretation. For example, "Is the school free of litter and graffiti?" is fairly indisputable, as is "What is the attendance record of the pupils of this school?"

But "Does this school make good progress with disadvantaged groups?" is significantly trickier. What does 'good' mean? What does 'progress' mean? Which pupils are 'disadvantaged'? Are they disadvantaged in relation to other pupils in the school or in relation to the general population? And what constitutes 'good' in say, musical activity? Is it 'better' to have 80 per cent of pupils learning to play an instrument but none of them above Grade 3, or 30 per cent, of whom two-thirds are at Grade 5?

The consultation paper extols the virtues of an overall grade which, it argues, would help to simplify and streamline the system by providing a single balanced measure to take account of the whole range of school responsibilities. It would "help ensure that the focus of public attention and accountability is on how the school is performing in the round."

This raises some key questions: Will parents and other stakeholders place too much credence on the overall score or grade? Who will want to send their children to a school with a low overall grade? Who will want to teach in one or lead it? How will this be incentivised? What appeal mechanism will be in place for schools to challenge the overall grade awarded? Are we at risk of creating a whole new industry of performance indicators?

So while I welcome the measurement of schools on a wider basis, I am concerned that it carries some significant risks. There are alternatives, if we can just think differently.

When we join our plane or train, we expect to be taken safely and effectively to our destination, unless a natural phenomenon or an extraordinary event interferes. In the same way, when we send our children to school, we should expect them to be educated to a high standard.

What we therefore need is an accountability regime that confirms a school's licence to practice as an effective educational institution. To achieve this, it will need to meet a range of demanding standards. While these are met, its licence remains in place. If some are not met, the licence is 'endorsed' until those elements are put right. In such cases, a revisit to ensure standards are met will follow and, ultimately, the licence will be removed. Remove, therefore, the 'special measures' and 'notice to improve' labels, but instead make clear what it is that must be improved for the licence to remain in place.

In this way, parents will be assured that their child will attend a school that will provide a high standard of education. There will not be naming and shaming, but a clear and professional recognition that some element(s) need to be improved and that the risks of not addressing these are serious.

As they stand, the proposals for the school report card, together with the continued publication of league tables, risk leaving headteachers more like supermarket managers than pilots, and their 'consumers' making choices based on misleading information.

Bob Wolfson is a former principal of Kingsbridge Community College and ex-director of children's services in Wiltshire. He is a member of the New Visions group.

Further reading...

Read the full version of this article at www.newvisionsforeducation.org.uk/content/GRADINGSCHOOLSV3.pdf

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