In the Lent term, the schools’ admissions and examinations rockets are being serviced for lift off. They cost as much as putting a man on the moon, but they rise unseen in their trajectory. Take admissions: our registrar is booking the rooms for appeals, the annual school-funded burnt offering on the altar of government guidance. These rooms have been the setting for 220 appeals in the past three years (each meticulously prepared, each a work of hours, only a handful successful).
Our independent clerk, the calmest and fairest of men, insists, rightly, that the code, law and guidance are followed. For example, the panellists eat their school-funded lunch at a segregated table. The whole process, including staff and administration expenses, can cost an oversubscribed school tens of thousands of pounds, about half of which is typically refunded by a grant back to the school from central government.
Raging at this cost, the time, the inefficiency of it all is a scream into the outer reaches of the universe. Apparently, it has to be this way. Appellants may appeal to all schools that did not offer them a place; many appeal to three. Anyone can appeal, at any time, for any reason, with several options for appeal beyond the appeal so that the appeal is not really the appeal, just an appeal.
It is difficult to argue against the uncompromising pursuit of perfect justice, but should not someone count the cost of this ziggurat of papers, hearings, clerks and tears?
Last summer the schools adjudicator upheld our argument against a group of parents unhappy that they lost their appeal. A phone call informed us that we were being reviewed. Succinct emails – all professional, all polite, all asking for something – poured in over the summer. The original complaint was not upheld, but the lawyer proceeded to go through the admissions policy with another toothcomb, suggesting small changes. Around 100 hours of administrative time later, it was all settled with no real change. Who pays for this? Everyone looks away as the costs mount. By all means cut learning support, or school sport or library book purchases. But you can’t touch this.
Examining the cost
What about exams? I’m not aware of any other country where every major secondary school has a data manager and an examination officer. Full-time. The inefficiency is glaring when one considers that despite all this administration, in many exams the pass rate is only about 60 per cent. The entry fees of those who failed are needed to subsidise the qualifications of those who passed, a dispensation which may well reflect the harsh inequalities of the present. Thousands of schools are paying for their students, who must be entered for some of these examinations, to fail. For a school of my size, exams and their administration will cost £130,000 this year.
Meanwhile, the AQA exam board just sent an inspector to verify that we were kosher, and another on separate day to make sure we were OK to teach the new biology A-level syllabus. Doubtless I will soon be shaking hands with yet another badged itinerant.
The only sadistic consolation is knowing that they, too, will be inspected, by Ofqual, who one presumes we somehow fund as well, because the cycle of inspection, verification and control has a name to which no one may object: accountability. Accountability is the source of trust, so we are told. It is also the counsel of fear. And it costs.
Hans van Mourik Broekman is headmaster of Liverpool College
This feature first appeared in the EdBiz supplement accompanying the 11 March issue of TES. Subscribers can read the full supplement on the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here