'Ofsted needs to realise that schools in poor areas can't just be judged on test scores'

22nd February 2017 at 13:03
schools must be rewarded for their uniqueness
In some schools just getting many of the pupils through the gates is a success – but this is overlooked when the inspector calls, writes one educationist

Every school in the country is unique.

This "uniqueness" is something to be celebrated and it is created by all the individuals within that school and all the external factors that impose themselves.

Deprivation is perhaps the most important of these external factors.

I consider myself fortunate that all of my 26 years of headship were spent in a school deemed to have high levels of deprivation. However, I feel strongly that the issues associated with such schools are not fully appreciated.

It is essential that such schools are set up to work not just for results but for the wellbeing of every individual. The best have many structures established and staff employed to meet these needs: home-school link workers, counsellors and emotional support assistants are crucial in addition to excellent teachers.

Ultimately, the aim for such schools should be to accept that there are no excuses and that all children will succeed, but this rhetoric is so much easier said than put into practice.

The pressures placed on a school in a deprived area are high, and not always understood in the education sector. Too often the powers that be seem to believe that all children are the same and that they will all achieve at the same level, and that if you simply place a little extra money in these schools, they can have little to complain about.

If it was as easy as that, all schools with wealthier intakes and those with more deprived pupils would achieve similar results and similar Ofsted reports. But they don’t.

We have this enormous disparity when comparing a deprived school with one less challenged.

'Teachers become social workers'

The reality is that schools in deprived areas have a plethora of issues to deal with daily. Poverty too often leads to poor attendance, health issues, lack of parental support and in many cases mental illness. It is under-appreciated that schools in deprived areas have to work with the parents on all these issues. Teachers become social workers and health workers, in addition to their day-to-day teaching.

Breakfast clubs and after-school clubs are standard practice. As is phoning before school and picking children up from home – and that's before the lessons even begin. Quite often dealing with clothing and nutritional needs, as well as providing emotional support, is a normal start to the day.

And yet when a school is inspected, very little of this additional work is considered: to actually get many of these children through the school gates is an incredible success in itself.

The reality is that schools in deprived areas have to go so much further before they even start thinking about lessons. Getting a child into school, supporting a carer, providing a base for homework and giving emotional support are standard .

But when Ofsted comes to call, often all of this work is subsumed into test results.

In 2017 this is not acceptable.

I chose to work where I did, as did many of my colleagues. We saw it as a vocation. We recognised that children needed more than a teacher: they needed a mentor and a confidant, and, dare I say it, a friend.

Teachers and schools need to be inspected differently. I recently talked to a local secondary school which has so many structures in place in order to keep pupils in school. They have a farm and training opportunities in all vocational areas.

It is a school which aims to meet all needs, even though this has a negative effect on resources. And yet when it was recently inspected, what dominated the conversation? Test scores, of course.

This is a travesty. All children are different and have different start points. And yet we try to squeeze them into identical little units so they can all be compared with each other.

I was proud to work in a deprived area. I hope in some way I made a difference.  But such work is irrelevant if Ofsted does not recognise that schools are more than test data, they are not machines churning out results, they are much more important than that.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsteds were 'outstanding' across all categories

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