A system of desperate measures

20th June 2003 at 01:00
"Excellence and enjoyment". Ted Wragg likes the sound of these two buzzwords side by side (TES, June 6). So do I, and, more importantly, judging by the Department for Education and Skills website, so does the Education Secretary. "Charles Clarke unveiled his plans for promoting excellence and enjoyment in education" (May 20).

Ted Wragg's article was on the back page of The TES. What was the front page story? "Headteachers will be able to use a new government computer system for tracking pupils' progress to judge and compare the performance of every teacher." Forgive me, but how can a computer system measure excellence or enjoyment?

Oh, you mean excellent results "compared to those of similar pupils in similar schools". Would that be "similar" in the way that my last school, an inner-city secondary modern, was "similar" to those secondary moderns with significant middle-class intakes, against the performance of which its results were unfavourably compared? In fact, its GCSE results were significantly higher than the average for comprehensives in the neighbouring and far larger metropolitan authority. Its secondaries were comprehensive schools that included the full range of academic abilities, whereas the 11-plus system in our authority creamed off the highest-attaining 40 per cent of pupils.

Ah, but you can't argue with value-added. Well, I can. My last Year 11 group in that school achieved an average added value residual of - 0.5. In other words, thanks to my teaching, they scored half a grade lower than expected. Value-subtracted, if you like. So why am I not on the dole?

Because I'm an advanced skills teacher. Me, an AST? With my appalling results record? That's right. You see, my previous Year 11 group achieved an average of 1.5 GCSE grades above what was expected of them. Same teacher, same school, big difference. This group was a highly biddable top set, the other, a lowest set with some challenging pupils. Luckily, my head was intelligent enough to know the limitations of results predictions, unlike the pupil achievement tracker (Pat).

Had I not had faith in my head, I would, as head of department, have hogged all the good classes at the start of Year 10 and given colleagues all pupils likely to drag down results. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that positive value-added is most noticeable in top sets, and negative value-added most marked in the lowest. Does Pat know this? Does it heck!

Anyway, I have moved on. As a languages teacher, I invest much time in setting up an annual student exchange because there is no better embodiment of "excellence and enjoyment". There is a vast improvement in the students' linguistic confidence and skills, and it's a hugely positive social and cultural experience.

"Don't you think," a science colleague asked me after our recent return from our exchange leg abroad, "Michael Smith should have stayed here? He would have got an A grade on his science coursework. Now, he might only get a B."

Grade B on his science coursework? God forbid. And lest you think I'm being flippant, no, I'm pleased Michael didn't stay here. Not because he may go up two grades in French, but because, during the exchange, he learned far more than can be measured. Not forgetting, of course, that he chose to take part.

Mind you, I still think Pat will be useful. It will identify heads who know far too little about their staff and pupils and the challenges they face daily. Any head who sends off for Pat thinking it will be even remotely useful needs urgent professional development on what education is really about.

Jenny Owl is a head of department in a northern comprehensive. She writes under a pseudonym

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