I gave my first talk as a headteacher on 1 September 2003. I was speaking to the staff of Lady Lumley’s School who sat in front of their new boss basking in the glory of their best ever GCSE results: 67 per cent of their students had gained five A*-C GCSE grades. It was so long ago that "with English and maths" wasn’t even a factor.
I had come from Huntington School in York, where we were proud of measuring the value we added. So, provocatively – considering I was only 38 years old and from Brighton – and with some temerity, I said to my new colleagues from deepest North Yorkshire, "Congratulations, 67 per cent getting five A*-Cs is great. The thing is, you have no system here to measure the value added underneath those results. You don’t know if it should have been 57 per cent or 77 per cent."
I survived. Just.
When the school’s performance and assessment report was published later in the year, it was awarded C grades at best on the four main accountability measures. The school was ranked 38th out of 47 secondaries in the county in terms of student progress; when I left, four years later, that ranking had risen 35 places to third. And in 2007 the five A*-C GCSE grades figure was 78 per cent – and 69 per cent if you included English and maths.
The "with English and maths" criterion had a major impact on schools when it was introduced in 2005, and we are now grappling with the new headline figures for performance, which came into force this summer. Progress 8 has arrived.
Making sense of the new headline data is a challenge. At Huntington School, our attainment measures look good, with our A8 figure of 56.3 most encouraging, especially in the light of 40 per cent of our students attaining the full English Baccalaureate qualification. Our English and maths basics figure is 70 per cent.
But these three measures are attainment…I want our P8 score. I want to know how much progress our students have made.
Our P8 score should be OK, but I don’t know. I am troubled by headteachers who are claiming to know their school’s P8 figure. I would be cautious. Hubristic declarations about the most important accountability measure of all could well lead to the inevitable fall…
Focus on what really matters
So yesterday, our first day back, I was effusive in my praise for my colleagues in the light of our students’ results. When the national A*-C pass rate dropped to 66.9 per cent, ours rose to 77 per cent; when the A*/A pass rate dropped to 20.5 per cent ours rose to 30 per cent. What’s not to like?
But the progress figure will have to wait until October, when it is published by the Department for Education.
In these times of turbulence within the examination system, all one can do is hold on to what we are certain about – our values system.
I know I couldn’t have asked any more of the staff and students at this school. They worked tremendously hard and can say, hand on heart, that they did all they could, and that is all I can ask of them.
We achieved the most valuable outcome of all for our students this summer – a good set of qualifications secured in a culture of love.
John Tomsett is headteacher of Huntington School in York and tweets at @johntomsett