Ministers change tack to improve poor primaries

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Underperformers unlikely to be judged in the same way as National Challenge secondaries

Ministers are looking at a radically new approach to school improvement for primaries that involves dropping the emphasis on raw exam scores in favour of a more holistic view of performance.

Ideas being considered include selecting schools for more support, according to balanced scorecards that could measure performance in many areas, or Ofsted reports.

The move would be a major shift away from the controversial National Challenge approach for secondaries, a scheme announced earlier this year that singled out 638 schools - ultimately threatening closure - on the basis of the proportion of pupils achieving good GCSEs.

But, significantly, the National Challenge scheme does not take schools' social context into account.

When the scheme was launched, ministers suggested there would be a version for primaries. But they have since faced a backlash from teachers and heads who are angry that schools with high contextual value added scores and good Ofsted reports faced damaging publicity because of the scheme.

In an apparent U-turn last month, the Government denied there would be a version for primaries. This week, in an exclusive TES interview, schools minister Jim Knight reveals what might replace it. He said setting a benchmark for schools to reach or else face consequences was the "more controversial end" of National Challenge.

It had not been decided whether there would be a primary benchmark. Even if there is, it is likely to be based on a wider measure of performance. "We are looking, for example, at school report cards, which are looking to measure the performance of schools more in the round," he said.

"You might have a benchmark that reflects that rather than raw attainment. There are a number of different ways you could set a benchmark. But equally, if you didn't want to set a benchmark, you could do it on the basis of a different analysis of how well a school was doing. And that might look at Ofsted, it might look at a combination of indicators."

He said individual tuition, support for leadership and advisers could also be used for primaries, as they had been under the National Challenge programme.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The bullish way they went at it last time wasn't helpful. If they are going to have a different approach for primary schools based on what they can do to support those with hard-to-reach children, I haven't got a problem with that."

Mr Knight's interview also reveals he once had reservations about academies - the controversial state-funded schools he now has responsibility for - and that time constraints may prevent him from building the same close relationship with sponsors that his predecessor Lord Adonis enjoyed.

The Government announced further help for low-performing National Challenge secondaries this week, with those with fewer than one-fifth of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths to be allowed to refuse to admit pupils who show "challenging behaviour".

Jim Knight interview, pages 24-25

Leading article, page 44.

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