Find beauty in the beast

It got off to an ugly start, but the National Challenge provides tailored support that heads should make the most of

Ben Slade

I wrote on these pages last summer about the fiasco that was the launch of the National Challenge. To name, shame and threaten 638 secondary schools with potential closure or federation because fewer than 30 per cent of their pupils achieved the new GCSE benchmark was devastating to teachers, students and parents.

Despite the Government's repeated assertions that "there wasn't a list" and "we haven't used the term failing", newspapers across the country featured the names of local schools and colleges that were "not performing", "failing" and "threatened with closure".

The National Challenge also affected me personally. I had made a reasonable start in my first headship (notwithstanding the usual cock-ups made when you are young, naive and keen). With everyone pulling together, our results for pupils getting five A to C grades, including English and maths, rose dramatically from 23 per cent in 2007 to 42 per cent last year. But before the latest results were published, were were branded a "failing school".

I considered my position very seriously. It seemed the dogged hard work - in many cases to improve standards and effectiveness (reflected in high contextual value-added figures, "most improved" lists and Ofsted reports) - suddenly meant nothing. It was hardly the way to encourage pupils or staff at exam time, when they needed to give their best efforts. Lasting damage was done.

That said, as leaders of National Challenge schools and colleges, we need to look beyond the handling of the launch and engage with the programme that will govern our working practices for at least the next three years. If we want to ensure that we remain in business, we must focus on the positive aspects of the package and begin to appreciate that the National Challenge may indeed be beneficial to us. After all, if we ignore its farcical bidding procedure, it will provide bespoke and tailored extra resources to help us make significant further progress. It is quite some time since this has occurred in education.

I was heartened to meet our new National Challenge adviser. I am delighted to say she is a former head with a wealth of experience who is committed to working with us to improve the college's performance and the outcomes for pupils.

As a newcomer to headship, I was feeling particularly insecure, despite our impressive performance. Having shared ideas with her, I felt much more confident that we can continue to make improvements. In my view, this will be much better than the school improvement partners programme. Ours is a professional dialogue that focuses more acutely on raising standards.

There is a feeling among some heads that the advisers will be able to take a more proactive role in schools and ensure that funding is appropriately targeted for maximum impact. They have a clear brief to raise standards and report directly to the Department for Children, Schools and Families and ministers. They therefore have more clout than local authority advisers and consultants who sometimes have to be careful when making or documenting judgments about the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

In November, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The National Challenge needs to support schools with increased resources, targeted assistance and, crucially, brokering local solutions between schools and local authorities." I can actually see this evolving slowly, and - again - the advisers are key to this. We - me as head, our adviser and the local authority - are already working hard to broker a relationship with a successful local college, focused on improving the quality of middle (and distributed) leadership and use of data.

In terms of improvement planning, we are using the concept of the raising attainment plan (RAP), part of the National Challenge package, to focus minds on five key issues.

- Standards at key stage 4 need to be raised, especially in English and maths, with particular reference to the GCSE cohort of 2010. Data should be better used to focus interventions at subject and whole school levels.

- Standards of teaching and learning need to be improved to the best levels seen at the school and good practice should be shared more widely.

- Persistent absence and lateness needs to be addressed as it is impeding the progress of pupils and, in a small school, has a devastating effect on our performance data.

- We need to address stubbornly low levels of literacy and numeracy across the school with a view to raising standards and improving life chances.

- We need to strengthen the focus of middle leadership on learning, achieving, monitoring and evaluating.

Every part of the school is producing its own RAPs (don't laugh) as well as self-evaluation forms. The strategic improvement plan still exists, but the RAP is now the main feature.

On reflection, perhaps we were in danger of trying to improve everything rather than focusing solely on KS4.

The stronger management structures in the National Challenge package are also very helpful as they provide useful audit tools and lesson-planning frameworks. They also attempt to redress the balance of the National Professional Qualification for Headship, which was almost wholly focused on vision and values as opposed to structures. Because these elements were written by the national strategy teams, they fit existing programmes such as Assessing Pupils' Progress.

However, I must conclude by saying that none of the National Challenge materials, or indeed the national strategy's, are more than good practice repackaged. They consist of solid and sound advice about how to teach and lead well.

But none of this is any good in the absence of high-quality teachers in front of the learners. This is still a huge issue for many schools and colleges across the country. The Government needs to look at this as a matter of urgency if it is really serious about improving standards.

Ben Slade, Principal at Manor Community College, Cambridge.

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