Mud sticks after public flogging
Let me tell you about how the wrath of the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Employment has rained upon our neighbourhood. Here, as elsewhere, the fortunes of local schools blow with the wind. That wind has been a particularly ill one of late, thanks to the naming, shaming, blaming and defaming that has become the new model of quality control in education.
My daughter, now 16, has just finished her GCSEs at Islington Green school in the neighbouring borough of Islington. She went there because all of her friends were already there and reports from parents were positive. They were there because the local comprehensive, Stoke Newington, was going through a trough at that time.
I took a leap of faith sending her there, because Islington Green itself had only recently emerged from a similar trough. But the leap was worth it. My daughter's friends in the year above did phenomenally well and, so far, so has she. It hasn't been all plain sailing, but there have been a few good teachers who have inspired her over the years to work hard and take pride in what she does.
Then thunder struck. A few weeks ago, the school failed its OFSTED report and special measures were called for. My response was mixed. After puzzling over how the school could be so irredeemably bad when everyone I knew had done so well there, I allowed myself to be contaminated by the notion of failure. Had I subjected my daughter to an inferior education just so she could be with her friends? Would she have done better at a "better" school, whatever that means? Had I failed her?
Thankfully, those tormenting doubts soon gave way to anger, always a more comfortable place to be. A school whose five-plus A to C GCSE grades had jumped from 25 per cent in 1995 to 38 per cent last year, as Islington Green's had, is not a failing school. It is doing something right.
At a special meeting, parents voiced their disbelief and outrage, alongside teachers who felt they had had the carpet pulled from under them. The collective response was that while this was not a perfect school, it was essentially serving its students well and did not deserve this damning indictment. Its problems could be resolved without outsiders being called in.
My daughter's years at Islington Green are over. But their legacy will live with her forever, now tainted with the ugly epithet of failure. And what about the others still there? How are teachers, governors, children and parents going to live with this pronouncement? Can a school that has been judged incapable of dealing with its own affairs ever recover in its own eyes, never mind those of its community?
A few weeks later came news of another failure in my life. Hackney local education authority has been condemned as failing by the DFEE. My son, a Year 7 student, goes to the once iffy, now up and coming Stoke Newington school in the borough of Hackney.
All his friends are there (which is why he didn't want to go to Islington Green) and he is happy and doing well. But with all Hackney schools tarred with the same brush as those schools in genuine trouble, Stoke Newington school now has the cloud of dodginess hanging over it.
What the implications of being run by a "failing LEA" are for his school, and others who are fighting the good fight, we don't yet know. But what it could well mean is an acceleration of middle-class flight from Hackney. A small but significant drift at present takes place at secondary transfer. But now, those with the wherewithal might choose to avoid Hackney primaries too. If this were to happen, there is a real danger of Hackney becoming one big sink ghetto.
I would ask the chief inspector at OFSTED and the Minister for School Standards a question: if they had a child who was having difficulties at school, would they drag it through the streets, declaiming its lack of achievement? Or would they bring in expert consultants to calmly but rigorously sort out the problems?
Poorly-managed local education authorities and schools need sorting out quickly and effectively. What they, their staff and their consumers don't need is this modern equivalent to a public flogging. When that happens, everyone comes out bruised. And in the present market approach to education, nobody wants damaged goods.