Blunkett's right, the 'average' should be higher..

26th May 1995 at 01:00
Bernard Barker, who decried David Blunkett's speech which committed Labour to raising standards using performance indicators (TES May 5), seems to have misunderstood the point.

The shadow Education Secretary was suggesting that, by the year 2000, 80 per cent of the pupil population should achieve results that are currently confined to a much smaller proportion. Blunkett feels we in education underestimate potential and give pupils the message that they aren't capable of doing well.

My experience tells me he is right. By definition, only 50 per cent can reach the average, but Blunkett is advocating creating a new, higher, average by raising the expectations of students and staff. This is the principal role of a college principal or school headteacher.

It can be done - and has been in some institutions, but not in enough. In the past any pupil or student rolling along with an average C grade in an A to E scale was treated as doing all right. But those of us interested in individuals know well that for one student a grade C is outstanding, while for another it is very poor. To identify this and work on it requires the use of individual performance indicators, regularly monitored and discussed between students and staff, so as to build the confidence and self-esteem of the individual - as David Blunkett suggests.

What has happened at Greenhead College over the past seven years is one example. Initially, the staff looked at the relationship between incoming GCSE scores and A-level grades. The first questions concerned three or four departments which achieved consistently better grades than any others, and two or three departments whose results were consistently poor. We thrashed that out in the open and got rid of bad practice by spreading the good practice which was clearly identified by the results of students of like ability.

We started to get uniformity of performance across all departments at the level of the best - that is, we raised the average performance. Thus, perhaps 80 per cent of our students in 1995 are achieving at the levels which 50 per cent achieved five years ago.

Furthermore, using the bank of statistical evidence which we have built up, we can now say to a student within weeks of his or her arrival, that eight grade Bs at GCSE, for example, means we expect not less than three A-level grade Cs. We guarantee to talk to each student individually once a term about progress which is measured as a grade - the grade we would expect them to get on their performance at that time. Thus, if our expectation is a C and they achieve an A we will praise them to high heaven and set the A as their target to maintain.

However, if they get a grade E we will try to help them understand and identify any problems, and work through a programme to help them raise their standard.

Standards have risen from an average 12.7 UCAS points per student in 1987 to 18.2 in 1994. Students of equivalent abilities have raised grades in all subjects by one grade each.

The students like it. The staff like it and we have an air of high self-esteem and self-belief in the college because each student or staff member knows where she or he is going, has high aspirations and is helped to achieve them.

This is what I believe David Blunkett is talking about. This is what I hope Tony Blair is talking about when he says the policy is to set individual targets, so that schools with children of like-abilities can reach for the best results.

So, why not aim to raise the "average" from 50 to 80 per cent by 2000? To achieve it, though, will require principals and headteachers to make improvement a major focus for all staff and students. In colleges this will mean moving away from the "chief executive" approach which seems to focus on beating the funding formula and on applying for money from the Single Regeneration Budget, the European Social Fund, the Lottery, and the TEC, not to mention time and effort spent on lecturers' contracts.

We should know what our priorities are.

Kevin Conway is principal of Greenhead College in Huddersfield

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