‘Winter is coming for schools below floor standard – is it time to bend the knee to academy chains?’

12th September 2017 at 18:02
Winter is coming
One senior leader finds that Game of Thrones provides a useful analogy for the position of some schools this academic year

The battle for good GCSE outcomes is over and, much like the battle for Casterly Rock, it’s all turned out to be something of a damp squib.

The ravens are suggesting that, for most schools, there has not been the violent fluctuations in results that we saw after the last raft of changes to GCSEs. Looking across my own county, the old order has been pretty much maintained, with grammars, wealthy suburbs, less salubrious parts of town and council estates lined up almost perfectly in that rank order.

Perhaps the maintenance of this status quo is no surprise. Exam board statisticians are becoming more and more adept at reproducing the norm-referenced bell curve used to justify their own consistency year on year. It’s the very same bell curve that those aiming at school improvement in the lower echelons of school league tables have learned to loathe, as their students’ marks are compared to those of others nationally before a final grade is awarded.

And so, yet again, the outcomes of some schools will leave school leaders wondering what the hell the blood, sweat, and tears of the pre-exam battle were all for.

'No quick fixes'

I would hazard a guess that the most battered and weary senior leaders after results day weren’t the ones in schools with a selective intake or where Rightmove lists the school name as part of the property description. As we all know, the mountains some school leaders have to climb make for a harder and more treacherous slog than the mole hills climbed by headteachers and their teams in other communities.

In the same way you’re likely to have a clearer shot at the throne being born a Lannister than being born a wildling, if your intake arrive on day one with supportive parenting, a successful Key Stage 2 behind them, and an inbuilt sense of their own self-worth, then you’re generally going to have an easier time of it.

But in these days of the "social mobility" agenda, try to explain that where your school is situated and its subsequent intake might mean there are no quick fixes to poor results and you’ll be seen as making excuses.

Try to explain that perhaps low aspirations and economic prospects in the local community have played a part in your outcomes and you’ll have your "capacity for improvement" called into question.

Dare to explain that, thanks to its context, your school might simply need that commodity scarcer even that dragonglass – time – to improve and you will see yourself labelled as having low expectations.

Falling below the floor standard

To be clear, if context is king then I’m afraid the Department for Education and their own version of Ser Gregore Clegane, Ofsted, have slain any hope of a long and successful reign.

This year for schools maintained by the local authority and below the Progress 8 floor standard of -0.5, winter is coming.

I would urge leaders in these schools not to turn tail and head for Braavos or be distracted by petty wars such as that for Westeros. The real war is the one to be fought against special measures and the process of forced academisation it brings with it. This is the war that has the potential to sweep away the world of your school as you know it. This is no fairy tale. And it is coming. If I could crate up the evidence and cart it into each senior leaders’ meeting, then I would.

So what’s the answer? For many senior leadership teams, I strongly believe it’s time to swallow their pride, renege their autonomy and to join ranks with seeming enemies. It’s time to bend the knee to an academy chain while there is still a choice to be made. 

If you turn to fight the enemy together, you might just be able to save yourself from the army of the undead.

The writer is a senior leader in the north of England.

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