It's not a lot of help really...

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Failing schools need much more than extra cash and threats if they are to achieve targets, says Phil Taylor

ratitude and suspicion greeted Estelle Morris's announcement at the North of England education conference that the Government wishes to support schools in challenging circumstances.

More money for staff and resources will certainly be welcome, since these schools have to counteract the effects of poverty, morbidity, disrupted and dysfunctional families, unemployment, child abuse, crime, premature death, urban decay, illegal child labour, violence and drug abuse, among other things.

But many schools have started the spring term without key staff. And those in challenging circumstances will be unable to recruit the occasional maths or French teacher who comes on to the market because there is always a more salubrious school with a vacancy just down the road.

The recruitment specialists appointed to work with these schools will be unable to manufacture teachers overnight.

No one should underestimate the enormous damage that can ensue when vacancies are covered by a succession of supply teachers of varying quality, or not covered at all. It is a miracle if standards - by which is nearly always meant GCSE grades A* to C - are maintained, let alone raised.

At the December conference where Estelle Morris floated the Government proposals to around 500 heads, there was considerable evidence that the policy was not exactly "joined up". On at least two issues - the extra inspections and additional planning which these schools can look forward to - Professor Michael Barber tried to reassure the audience.

It was also apparent that many feel strongly that the whole policy is fundamentally flawed because it relies on arbitrary judgments. For example, schools which do not achieve more than 15 per cent GCSE grades A* to C for three successive years will be assumed to be failing and will face the axe.

Many teachers are incensed by this approach and feel betrayed, particularly by Estelle Morris and David Blunkett who have more knowledge of these shools than most politicians. When challenged, ministers resort to something along the lines of "in every school there must be at least 15 per cent of pupils who can achieve five or more higher grades".

Sadly, it is clear that among the school population there must be a finite proportion of young people who are capable of this. Even if the proportion is as high as 80 per cent, that leaves 20 per cent who are incapable of achieving five or more higher grades. It is a fact that some schools recruit overwhelmingly from this 20 per cent.

Previous attainment means that, however good the teaching, the school will not achieve the level of higher grades wanted by Labour.

For example, only 12 per cent of pupils achieved five A-C grade GCSEs at London's Phoenix school last year, despite the excellent OFSTED-approved leadership of William Atkinson. Such stubbornly low A* to C results in some of the schools coming out of special measures are all evidence that results are often beyond the school's control, as is the exodus of "fresh-start" heads.

School leaders, governors and many supportive parents and hardworking young people know this, and the longer Blunkett and Morris deny it, the more difficulty they will have in getting teachers to work in inner-city schools. And parents will not be queuing up to place their treasured offspring in schools which have been newly "named and shamed".

Admissions policies should be at the heart of the debate about bringing results up to standard. Many of the Government's exemplar schools are in a few London boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets, where the Inner London Education Authority's legacy means Year 6 students are banded by ability and each school receives the same quota from each band.

This is not to say that the comprehensives of Tower Hamlets are not good schools. Like most comprehensives they are doing a good job with the young people who walk through their doors.

And that's what it's supposed to be all about, Estelle.

Phil Taylor is headteacher of Stamford high school, Tameside Greater Manchester

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