'If we must have targets and floor standards, then they need to be smarter and more nuanced'

5th February 2018 at 17:40
Writing ahead of a debate tomorrow evening at the Institute of Education on supporting schools facing with the greatest challenge, one celebrated head demands a complete change to the way we hold schools accountable

It is still a joy when I get asked to contribute to a debate or write an article, but sometimes when you sit down to prepare, panic takes over. I am not certain that anything I have to contribute is anything other than blindingly obvious. Having said that, the issues around developing and maintaining successful schools in "challenging circumstances" have been around for a very long time, so perhaps that's where we need to start: with the obvious.

With this in mind, it was a relief to hear Ofsted chief inspector's Amanda Spielman recognise recently that in challenging communities it takes longer and is harder to make good progress: but what difference will that make to the headteacher finding it impossible to recruit to their school for those same reasons? Or those waiting for an inspection knowing that, despite doing everything possible, the outcome will feel punitive, not developmental.

So after years and years of this issue being a government focus and millions of pounds spent, why are we still seeing a similar picture across the country?

Smarter standards

Before you shout at me, I know the success of London schools has been much lauded – and if you look at the headline data you can see why. However, if you look at the data more closely, a different picture emerges. The recent piece by Mike Treadaway for Education Datalab highlighted that long-term, white, disadvantaged students in London achieved a Progress 8 score of -0.6; not significantly different to the rest of the country. This is compared to the results of minority ethnic students in London of +0.2.

Some of the less pleasant feedback from the performance data released last week came from people such as far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who decided that there is a conspiracy among education professionals against white, working-class children. This is a time for some adults to look in the mirror and not out of the window for who to blame and to realise the most significant difference that impacts on educational outcomes is not the colour of someone’s skin but their approach to working hard in school.

It now becomes difficult to not beat the same old drum about funding and teacher recruitment. It is also difficult to not point the finger at an accountability system that has lacked the flexibility and confidence to look at everything schools in these circumstances are doing and accept the fact that they are working flat out so do not deserve the punitive outcomes they have received in the past.

If we must have targets and floor standards, then they need to be smarter and more nuanced. They need to differentiate between the long-term disadvantaged families and the others. The government must also accept that, for many young people, school age is too late to start to improve things. A truly joined-up approach across public services to, first of all, identify the long-term challenges many families face and then to work collaboratively to meet them at the start of their child’s life; without fear of dire consequence if it takes longer than we hoped it would. 

Measure schools differently

My final thoughts centre on the current buzz phrase of "social mobility". If I am honest, I hate it. I think the phrase is used far too often to talk down working-class families. It makes it seem that being working class is something that people must escape from. This is perpetuated by our unrelenting focus on wanting more and more students to go to university. We are several years into the government drive for apprenticeships but how much closer are we to having parity of esteem for vocational routes rather than academic. I am very aware that my son is not being raised in a working-class environment, because of the profession of his parents, but I look at the qualities he has and so many of them come from the values I was raised with on our council estate.

So how about measuring schools on whether they have prepared students for a successful life beyond school? I know that 98 per cent of our young people went on to sustained education, employment or training – above the national average – with many of them taking a vocational route. You can thank us when there is a plumber available to fix your boiler when you need it.

Vic Goddard is principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex. He tweets @vicgoddard

"What if… we really wanted to support schools facing the greatest challenge?" takes place at Jeffery Hall, UCL Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London, tomorrow. Click here to book tickets. Follow the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #IOEDebates

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