Context is key to gauging success

24th June 2011 at 01:00

Politicians spend a lot of time messing around with education, but I sometimes wonder if they have the slightest understanding of what actually goes on in schools.

I'm reading Tony Blair's autobiography, and there's a short section where he says he feels New Labour had reached the point where its policies for raising achievement in literacy were working well. He was referring to the Literacy Hour, whereby all primary schools had to undertake a highly prescriptive hour of literacy every day. Huge boxes of Literacy Hour material had already been delivered at great expense to every primary school in the country. There were overhead projector lesson sheets, booklets, and even patronising instructions telling teachers exactly what to say. It had all been designed by academics who had spent little time in a real classroom; it was too rigid and fragmentary, and ultimately it failed.

If the aim was to get youngsters to write interestingly from an early age, it would have been better to train teachers in methods that inspire young children about writing and giving them the enthusiasm and tools to write. This was brought home to me forcibly some years ago when the markers returned our Year 6 English Sats papers. One child had written what we had considered a brilliantly descriptive piece, but he had only achieved a level 3 because he had been so fired by his flow of ideas that after the first few sentences he had forgotten his punctuation. Another child had scored a high level 4 with a short, turgid piece of prose filled with speech marks, colons, apostrophes and paragraphing. The examiner had merely played safe and kept to the things he could measure.

But politicians never let up, they rarely visit schools, and they can't be persuaded to move from the view that what's good for a primary in a leafy, affluent suburb is just as suitable for the challenging inner-city Victorian three-decker. Hence, we're now told that future league tables will ignore pupils' deprivation, ethnicity and background factors because contextually value-added merely "entrenches low aspirations for disadvantaged children".

What utter nonsense. Are we really saying that Jamil, who speaks virtually no English, has one uninterested parent and lives on a crumbling estate is as easy to educate as Cynthia, who lives with both parents in a nice semi-detached and has access to clever conversation, a range of media, and a pony?

Countless inner-city teachers work their backs off in trying circumstances to give the best education they can to the children. They grapple with broken and aggressive families, poor and sometimes violent behaviour, and young children who have had extremely negative pre-school experiences. These teachers often achieve remarkable things, but many of their children won't reach high academic levels and shouldn't be expected to. Does this mean headteachers will now be hammered by Ofsted if their results don't tally with the posh school down the road? Will good teachers, willing to teach in difficult areas, think twice about doing so because the added pressure simply isn't worth it?

I remember telling my governing body that our Sats results were down that year because the cohort had been far less able than the previous group. One governor couldn't accept this and said that we should be moving forward all the time, or we were failing. For an intelligent man, this seemed a remarkably stupid comment, and I told him so.

And given the ditching of contextual value-added, I think it's time we stopped running around in fear, and started biting back.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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