Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Panda - not so black and white

ASCL member Liz Allen voices her frustration and anxiety over the 2005 Panda and asks Ofsted where her lost students have gone.

Like many of my colleagues, I have experienced a mix of emotions since receiving the 2005 Panda, on 23 December. How I wish I had left it until January when, refreshed and reinvigorated, I could have gone straight to feeling outraged, bypassing self-doubt and depression.

"Where have all the A*s gone?" (to be sung to the Joan Baez tune of our youth). The RAI's response, when it finally arrived on 10 January, was no comfort: "We are aware of the issue...The problem has been caused by A* grades being omitted from the calculations at both school and national levels."

The A*s went missing during the CVA pilot in 2003 but were found again in time for 2004. The problem has been caused by incompetence - not quite what the RAI statement says.

However, A*s are easily retrieved and I could move on, apart from feeling irritated at Ofsted's lack of quality control. There was more searching to do.

The second hunt was for the 41 per cent of our year 9 students who achieved Level 5-plus in English, maths and science but somehow did not figure in the key stage 3 three-year summary. I don't believe the RAI helpdesk has found them yet because they have not returned any of our calls.

The largest of our expeditions is still out there, hunting for the 51 per cent of our students (495 of them) who do not seem to count at all in Table 1.1.6, Census Information.

One difficulty is that the means of calculating the school deprivation indicator is unfathomable. It is quite possibly a fairer method but headteachers can't find out how it works, despite committing their precious time to it. Is there any other group of leaders whose work is measured against unknown and probably incomplete data?

There are other irritations in the Panda. My local authority's data, the Panda and the Fischer Family Trust data do not agree, which makes it difficult to explain the students' attainment even to myself.

The differences may be small but it takes so much time to check that it becomes all-consuming, especially when Ofsted inspectors will make prejudgements on my school and I want to be ready for them.

For me, this is the heart of the matter. I know that the Panda does not give a true picture of the endeavours, attitude to learning and attainment of my students.

Whilst its formulae are unknown to school leaders and whilst the brightest and best of this country's young people have much of their attainment calculated out, it is hard to see how we can give a full account of our schools.

Invitation to Ofsted

The staff did get a little concerned when they learnt that I had written to HMCI Maurice Smith, inviting Ofsted to inspect the school, on condition that inspectors found the lost key stage 3 students, the students lost in the census table and the rest.

I assured them that the inspectorate is clever enough to recognise irony: they are not so sure.

As well as the invitation, I offered HMCI the opportunity to apologise to school leaders, teachers and students for the inaccuracies and injustices of the 2005 Panda and for the lack of help from the RAI.

I also suggested that it would be wise to suspend the inspections of secondary schools until the data are sufficiently robust and credible to support their judgements.

When this term began, I was so anxious about my school's apparent under-performance that I contacted a number of fellow heads/good friends.

The shower of responses has been very comforting, some helping to explain the muddles, some pleased to know that they are not alone, all angered by the delays, inaccuracies, mysteries, injustices and lack of support from Ofsted and the RAI.

All very aware that a great deal of our energy in the coming months will be diverted from leading our schools into defending our superb teachers and students against questionable Panda judgements.

I appreciate that Ruth Kelly has had some weighty matters to deal with, however unless the Panda receives speedy resuscitation, it will cease to live a meaningful life, even though inspectors will expect it to.

Already, excellent schools are being judged as merely 'satisfactory' and hard-working schools striving for improvement have not been so lucky. How unfair is that?

No, not unfair - outrageous, and worthy of page one news. I hope that Ms Kelly and Mr Smith will listen to secondary headteachers: we can help them to give our poorly Pandas the kiss of life.

Liz Allen is headteacher of Newstead Wood School for girls in Kent.

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