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Let's banish the back foot and set agenda for the next century

The 20th century's greatest poet, TS Eliot, was just starting to find his voice when The Times Educational Supplement launched 100 years ago.

Eliot taught us about the inevitability of change, lamented the deadening nature of dreary routine, and - as every schoolboy nowadays doesn't know - is the only major poet whose name is an anagram of the word "toilets". No mean achievement.

If Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I now measure mine out in August results days. This is my eighth as headteacher but might just as well be my 108th. Falling standards, easier exams, the supremacy of the independent sector - these feel like stories that have been swirling around a listless media for nigh on a century.

Which is why the best thing we can do on results days is to get ourselves into real schools with real students and remind ourselves what the job is about. These results matter, opening doors to college and sixth forms, to university courses and training, for thousands of students. The laughs and tears aren't fabricated: they are signs that qualifications mean more than inky words on paper. It's unfair that each year an unseemly pantomime is played out which caricatures achievement and trivialises the efforts of students and their teachers.

What's most striking with GCSE results is the distorting effect of the five-grade measure that includes English and maths. It sounds an enticingly sensible way of measuring how a school has done, but it also places an extraordinary level of narrow accountability on teachers in those two core subjects. It means that a school in which students gain a very high proportion of C grades and higher, across a whole range of subjects, may then be scuppered by a rogue class, a handful of disaffected students, or one dodgy teacher.

For us, every percentage point gained means three students have hit their target grade; in many schools a single student will represent a percentage point up or down the league table. The achievement of the many can be affected by the disproportionately significant influence of the few. This is especially galling if you're in a department that has gained 100 per cent grades C and above without resorting to the modern-day trickery of courses delivering four GCSE equivalents, only to find your school's performance slumping publicly into the Northern Premier League because of a staffing crisis in English or maths.

But then that's what performance tables do: they set a narrowing agenda which we all then dutifully follow, cantering about like wide-eyed ponies at a frenzied first gymkhana.

It's a familiar theme. If there has been one enduring lesson of 100 years of The TES, it is that we have too often seemed like a profession on the back foot. We pretend that there's no such thing as inadequate teachers. We respond defensively if someone says we have long holidays. We are overly thin-skinned when someone suggests that standards are falling or that exams today are different.

In recent years, the mercifully short-lived General Teaching Council (GTC) dominated the pages of this paper with its half-hearted reprimands and limp judgments which did little to strengthen a profession on the cusp of greater credibility.

So now it's over to us to set a more idealistic tone. As the GTC topples into quango oblivion, and the Government turns its attention to the next set of organisations to be similarly torched, we will ultimately be left with ourselves: schools, teachers, support staff and students. We are the front line.

And maybe that's why we should start to be a little bolder, especially when it comes to performance tables. Instead of clambering after the next incremental movement from one percentage point to the next, perhaps we should say something radical. After 11 years of compulsory education, isn't it disgraceful - genuinely shaming - that more of our students aren't getting C in English and maths? Do we really think that those two subjects are so tantalisingly difficult that a C is impossible for 40 per cent of our youngsters?

Shouldn't we be asking what we need to do to ensure that every child - irrespective of background - gains a C in these two core subjects, whatever it takes? That means doing all we can to get every pupil a level 4 in Year 7, a level 6 in Year 9 and then a C in Year 11.

This isn't a sop to league tables. Instead, it's a chance for the teaching profession to say to politicians and the media that we care just as much as anyone else about standards. Leave us alone, leave the curriculum uncluttered, give us freedom to innovate, and we will show that high achievement is non-negotiable. No excuses.

And that's where The TES comes in. School improvement doesn't happen by individual teachers reinventing a succession of wheels in their own classrooms. We need a focus to share good practice, read views of experts here and abroad, and to develop a collective voice on pedagogy. In other words, let us set the agenda.

Here's to the next hundred years.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

For more on the TES centenary, please visit:

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