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'Dear Amanda, my "socially mobile" school is spiralling downwards. What should I do next?'

Ofsted's annual report has left this teacher feeling frustrated, confused and angry. Here, she pens a letter to Amanda Spielman

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Ofsted's annual report has left this teacher feeling frustrated, confused and angry. Here, she pens a letter to Amanda Spielman

Dear Amanda, 

My school is spiralling downwards – and that's in "socially mobile" London, where the free school meal pupils do the best in this country.

What is going wrong? You say that working in a deprived area is no excuse for underperforming: schools that focus on the basics really succeed. I guess then, that I have not been focusing on behaviour and teaching in the last 14 years – without realising, I must have become lazy and complacent and let shit happen in my classroom as I planned my next summer holiday for some get-out geographical mobility.

Am I ignoring kids in my classroom because I don’t believe in the mantra that “every child matters”? You say we need to put “capacity” in place. I’m sorry I’ve let you down and forced you to slap the "requires improvement" label on my school. I’m sorry I’m going to need a return visit from you to reverse that label and get “good” again.

You are right: some schools really do things better than us.

In my school, we have a motto: "inclusive excellence". This means that we are a provider of social services – we keep kids off the street, out of the hood, and away from gangs during the day and prison 24/7.  When they still struggle to "perform" and meet the minimum target grade of a D, it screws up my results’ analysis at the end of August and means that I, as a teacher, have failed.

Clearly, we need to do what most schools now do with their sixth formers: cull the Es and Us, (ideally the Ds, too, but that might seem like D-for-Drastic – so let’s just say E-for-Eliminated instead and stick with that). 

Students not accepted

When I talk to other parents around me in leafy North London (we’re talking Southgate here, by the way, not even the Hampstead-to-Highgate sort of elite enclave), I hear stories of students not accepted on to A level courses because they didn’t get a C. The funny thing is, my students get As, Bs, Cs, Ds, Es and Us (that’s how inclusive we are) and then 80 per cent of them march off to university every year and send me messages about their new, happy lives.

Your organisation told me we need to be more aspirational, get more of our students into Russell Group universities. Some of my pupils have gone from pupil referral units, from doing GCSEs in hospitals under CAMS (the child and adolescent mental health service), from almost killing themselves at the age of 15 because of academic pressures to achieving A levels and carrying onto university with more sanitised and stable in their minds.

But because just only half of our students get their first or second choice universities, I am told to be more "aspirational". Apparently, our "consistent" track record of 80 per cent university destinations over the years "doesn’t count" in terms of assessing our function and success.

So, here I am in my school, trying to "turn it around" – a phrase I hear your organisation frequently use because all I’m doing is spiralling it down. Even though I’ve got a core of students missing from my lessons regularly, I am doing all the "metals-meddling" you have told me to do now with the bronze, silver and gold tasks integrated into my lesson plans judiciously.

'Teacher factor'

I should be excited. But I feel increasingly disheartened. Tom Rogers, recently wrote in Tes that only 1-14 per cent of educational outcomes can be attributed to the "teacher factor": "So, in other words, the better the genes, family life and location of your students, the better Ofsted grade you get."

His piece spoke to me – and to my school. Is it really right to say that the value-added score eliminates the differences between institutions, making them comparison-compatible?

I agree with Rogers that an institution which gets Bs as its average grades has different issues from one with mainly Cs and Ds. There are external factors at play which have a bigger vulnerability and volatility accentuating and catalytic effect on the C-D graders than the B grade students. Disease, death, suicidal inclinations all appear more in deprived areas. Oh, sorry Amanda, I didn't mean to default to the victim complex of "one-downmanship" you mentioned earlier today. 

We need to remind ourselves what education is for: to help students work out what they are passionate about and to turn that passion into a realm for personal growth as well as income-generation.

Zero-sum rat race

We need to remind ourselves that education cannot be merely about schools out-competing each other for intake and catchment initially, and then pitting those students-turned-candidates against each other in a man-eats-dog examination system as the final, all-determining rites of passage to earn the badge of "success".

As parents, teachers, educators and regulators we are currently endorsing the same zero-sum rat race of league tables and value added or subtracted labels. Wake up and smell the rancid coffee we are all forcing ourselves to drink – "social mobility" is stifled in this country and more people are resorting to non-needs-meeting mental health services and crime and homelessness rates are on the increase again. 

These "separate" issues are all interconnected. Education should be the great opportunity to reduce these social misalignments and failings – and at the same time increasing personal fulfilment and nurturing talent. But it ain’t. 

Corinna Gannon is a head of department in England  

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