Is best for one, best for all?

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Patrick Mcdermott Answers your leadership questions

I want to get our best pupils doing the AS-level from Year 10, and complete it by the end of Year 11. My head, predictably, is coming up with all kinds of reasons why we should not. Why can't he just come straight out with it and say, "we need to keep our bright pupils doing completely inappropriate courses to keep the GCSE average high"? It is not what is best for the pupils that counts. Help!

This raises some profoundly interesting issues concerning the learner versus league tables. First, part of your frustration comes from the obsession in this country with making each unique person jump through the exam hoops at exactly the same age, irrespective of ability, readiness or educational opportunities.

You obviously see students as individual learners whose needs are not always best served by treating them as a part of a homogenous unit.

Age-related exams make it easy for statisticians to produce league tables, which can be used for whatever purposes anyone wishes. Your head cannot ignore this agenda. Sometimes leadership is about weighing up the needs of the individual with the requirements of the common good.

Second, there is the tension here between innovation and league tables. You want to innovate and your head has an eye on league tables. But you have a wonderful opportunity to instigate a debate about pedagogy and the purpose of education in your school. Ask your head if the school can set up a working party to investigate the following:

* what is the learning entitlement of a Year 10 student? Is it to follow a prescribed GCSE course or something more subtle?

* what definition of learning is accepted and acted upon in your school?

* what values underpin your approach to learning, assessment and achievement?

* are any of the school's systems actually barriers to learning?

Your investigations may throw up other factors connected with the learner, such as emotional, social, and moral dimensions. Therefore make sure you investigate what responsibility you all have as leaders of learning for these as well. Try to distill from these discussions a learning policy and apply it to your Year 10 pupils. This will add weight to your discussions with your head.

Third, have you suggested looking at other measures of success besides the headline ones of exam results? This looks as though it would conform to the direction of the Government's thinking, as outlined by David Miliband, schools standards minister, in his speech to the North of England conference last month.

Mr Miliband talked about replacing the governors' annual report to parents with a "short, accessible" profile which would provide information on:

* pupils' attainment and progress, set against benchmarks for similar schools;

* how the school serves all its pupils;

* the most recent assessment by the Office for Standards in Education, set against the school's own self-assessment;

* the broader curriculum offered;

* the head and governors' priorities for future improvement;

* what the school offers the rest of the education system.

What you are striving for would be contained in such a profile and would be attractive to any forward-looking head.

Finally, I am sure you have familiarised yourself with the assessment objectives of the AS-levels you wish your Year 10 pupils to pursue. These often make demands not only on students' academic capabilities but also require a level of maturity in preparation for progression to A2. Are your students up to this? What will you offer in Year 12? What happens to those that do not attain a grade E at the end of Year 11?

You do right to remind us that the needs of the individual learner should concern us at least as much as the league tables.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11 to 18 girls' school, in Bradford. This is his third headship in 12 years. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and has mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.Do you have a leadership question? Email it to

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