Editorial - Lost Ground: the policy label that does stick

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Stigmatising schools remains political folly as ill-defined quality benchmark is snubbed

Names are important. Coasting, while better than Bog Standard and infinitely superior to Failing, is still damning in a supercilious kind of a way. Ministers have learnt from recent painful experience that schools are like pupils - they do better when encouraged, rather than embarrassed by insulting labels. Gaining Ground is much better - focused and resolute without being smug. Closing Fast would have been complacent, Moving On Up was a minor hit for M People and Accelerating Rapidly would have been far too indulgent.

A justifiable criticism of the National Challenge initiative was that it relied on a single benchmark to pinpoint laggards. Gaining Ground has avoided that problem by using several measures - stalled exam results, poor Ofsted reports, complacent leadership, becalmed pupil progression, et cetera. This has the added advantage of making it hard for outsiders to identify which schools are treading water, thereby reducing the opportunity to shame as well as name. Unfortunately, it also makes it exceedingly difficult to know what is going on. Baffled schools and local authorities have to rely on conflicting and indistinct criteria to determine if they are stuck in Gaining Ground, Falling Back or cheerily Surging Ahead. Estimates of the total number involved vary from 100 to half the secondary schools in the country.

The absence of a clear definition also makes it easy to deny that there is a problem. Nearly half of all local authorities in our survey (page 32) say they have no Gaining Ground schools. Some refuse to be judgmental. Others cunningly point out that as the department has refrained from compiling a list, they do not feel obliged to concoct one either. This Walking Swiftly Away strategy can be crudely summed up as: "We're not falling for that one. You Whitehall Johnnies got egg on your faces last time you stigmatised struggling schools. Do your own dirty work." Indeed, the architects of Gaining Ground appear to be half-hearted themselves, tempting heads who opt to join with a miserly Pounds 10,000 per year over two years. Not much of a reward for risking a reputation.

A policy that struggles for a name, fumbles for a clear definition, is easily sidestepped and lacks adequate incentives should not have much of a future. However, it has one undeniable thing going for it, the trump card of fraying initiatives everywhere - Stating the Obvious. Why should pupils, parents and teachers put up with mediocrity, proponents could reasonably ask? Shouldn't schools stretch children and not rest on their laurels? Who can argue with that? Well, no one - which is why local partnerships and initiatives for specific problems already exist. A grandiose policy with a resolutely improving title simply isn't needed.

Back in the real, unlabelled world, 80 per cent of the variation in exam results between schools can be explained by differences in pupil background. It is still depressingly easy to predict what young children will achieve 15 years later simply by taking into account their social class. As a society, we haven't gained much ground at all.

Gerard Kelly, Editor. E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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