Headteachers: ASCL leader says labeling schools by their exam thresholds is daft

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Average or excellent? New ASCL president's school suffers local authority indecision

Original paper headline: From coasting to high-performer in a weekend

The leader of a head teachers' association who saw his school go from coasting to high performing in a weekend says the experience demonstrates how "daft" ministers are to label schools according to exam thresholds.

John Morgan, the Association of School and College Leaders' (ASCL) new president and head of Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees, was shocked on a Friday in February when he heard that his local authority was proposing that his school should be part of the Government's "coasting schools" programme.

"Nobody that knows Conyers would ever say it was coasting," Mr Morgan said. "It is not the kind of school that the Government was hoping to identify. But the local authority was clearly under pressure to look round and find some of its schools to fit the bill."

The following Monday his staff managed to persuade Stockton-on-Tees Council that Conyers was, indeed, not coasting. And their stance was vindicated the next day when the secondary received a letter saying it had been designated as a high-performing specialist school.

"We had gone from potentially being a coasting school to high performing in the course of a weekend," Mr Morgan said.

"But nothing had changed - the school was exactly the same. It demonstrates the simplicity of using exam result thresholds to categorise schools when the real situation is much more subtle."

The head, who took over as ASCL president this month, said his school had been singled out by the local authority because its GCSE results had dipped slightly in 2007 from 69 per cent of pupils gaining 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths to 62 per cent.

Ironically, it was the same measure, which climbed to 70 per cent last year, combined with a good Ofsted verdict, that led to Conyers being designated as high performing.

Mr Morgan said: "To hit a particular threshold and suddenly be `high performing' or whatever is just as daft as not meeting 30 per cent 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths and being put on the National Challenge scheme."

It was the huge controversy caused by the National Challenge, which threatened to close schools not meeting the 30 per cent threshold, that persuaded the Government to adopt a more flexible strategy for coasting schools.

Local authorities were asked to identify them by looking at nine indicators ranging from complacent leadership to no improvement in exam results for several years.

The indicators did not include the one-year dip experienced by Conyers. But Mr Morgan said that with only 14 secondaries, some of which were already in the National Challenge and others judged to be outstanding, his authority only had a few it could consider for the coasting programme.

"In theory it would have brought extra support," Mr Morgan said. "But the newspaper headlines that would have gone with the coasting label could have been damaging.

"The Government should be concentrating on more moves towards joint working between schools rather than thinking up categories and making schools jump through hoops through pressure and blame. It almost implies that schools don't want to improve."

Alex Cunningham, Stockton-on-Tees Council's cabinet member for children and young people, said the authority had a statutory responsibility to monitor, challenge and support all schools but always sought to work in partnership with them.

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