Improvement measured in Brownie points

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
I have to feel sympathy for Ed Balls
I have to feel sympathy for Ed Balls. A Tory politician is expected to send his children to private school. But if you're Labour, you either get hammered in the press for sending your children privately, or, if you send them to the local state school, the press can't hide its jubilance when the institution appears to be falling apart.

Which is what has happened to poor old Ed. We're told that standards at the primary school his children attend have plummeted so fast it is failing to provide acceptable education, and the place has been threatened with the dreaded special measures.

But hang on ... let's delve through the journalistic hysteria and examine things more closely. Read further, and you find that the school's "failure" was principally due to having inadequate data on children's academic achievement. One paper even says "... data like this is absolutely essential for ensuring children improve".

What utter tosh. What actually happens in education these days is this: the government needs to show that the quality of education is constantly "improving". How does it do that? With test results, hence the massive emphasis on them these days. It also needs to prove schools are constantly - to use the dreadful current edujargon - "driving up standards". How? Send Ofsted in at regular intervals. The fact that the school might have huge social problems, and anything up to 30 different languages spoken within it, is neither here nor there.

But Ofsted is an unbelievably expensive operation, hence the change from whole week inspections to a couple of days. What can be seen in two days? Precious little in my view ... but that's time enough to scan the data and make an assumption about the school. There isn't time to find out whether things check out in reality, so decisions, often hopelessly wrong, are made about the success or failure of the school.

And some of these decisions can be disastrous for both the schools and communities they serve.

Recently, I read about a school whose relatively new headteacher had been forced out following an unsuccessful inspection. The results weren't high, but compared with how they had been under the previous management they were a huge move forward. The school was popular with children and parents, the governors felt it was doing a good job, and there was enormous support from the local education authority. Why was it deemed a failure? Because too few children had been forced through Level 4.

Every teacher, primary or secondary, knows that test results are everything. Get good ones, and you're home and dry as far as inspections are concerned.

If you're a seasoned primary head, you don't worry too much about poor KS1 results. You aim for spectacular KS2 ones so that your value-added soars, and teachers have found all sorts of ways to coax Year 6 through the hoops.

Of course, it means the secondaries suffer a bit, because they inherit Level 4 children who aren't necessarily proper Level 4s. But they know how to play the game too, ensuring their pupils choose subjects that carry enough Brownie points to keep the government happy. It certainly can't be called a proper education.

Sadly, it's the newer, inexperienced headteachers who are really up against it. They have to learn to play the game very quickly, because if they don't, they're likely to spend a few years in the job before collapsing from stress or being forced out by a vicious inspection.

What a truly worrying educational world we inhabit at the moment.

Mike Kent, headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.

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