Our pupils have been sacrificed to an ideology

31st August 2012 at 01:00

Whatever we say in public, heads and teachers know that GCSE exam results matter. A lot. They open doors for young people, they forge and reinforce our reputations in the local community and they shape the judgement of the next Ofsted visit. We know that hundreds of heads lose their jobs each year because someone somewhere feels that we are no longer part of the solution in our schools, but instead part of the problem.

It wasn't my school's results that alerted me initially. Because of a technical hitch, by the middle of Wednesday I still hadn't seen them. Instead, over lunch with an old friend, I received an anguished phone call from the leader of one of the country's highest performing schools saying that its English results were "catastrophic". Had I heard whether there was a general problem? I hadn't.

Then I received our own results: a disastrous drop in English of about 15 per cent that meant the school's overall performance had taken a very significant hit. Next I received two unconnected phone calls from heads in schools in challenging circumstances saying that they were thinking of resigning. Like all of us, they saw bad results as a reflection on their own leadership skills.

On Wednesday evening, I posed an innocent question via Twitter about whether other people were seeing a more widespread problem with GCSE English. The responses I received contained a mix of utter dismay and relief that we were not alone.

On Thursday, the problem was confirmed and heads in schools tumbling below the 40 per cent floor target asked if I would speak out because they were too fearful: if they dared to criticise exam boards, Ofqual or the Department for Education, a vicious revenge might be wrought upon them. It's a sign of the way our accountability system is stalked by and built on fear and denigration.

This, for me, whatever happens as a result of Ofqual's investigation, is the sourest message of all in this sorry, sordid business: a lack of leadership from above. There were early denials that any problem existed, then a grudging review and free rein given for out-of-touch commentators to claim that this was about a liberal education establishment trying to defend falling standards.

It was nothing of the sort. It was conscientious teachers and leaders, in a broad cross section of schools, venting fury at what appears to have been a mighty injustice to our pupils.

And the real scandal of the whole affair is the shabby prolonged silence from our political leaders, the lack of empathy for pupils and their parents and the prevailing sense that with this administration, ideology matters more than fair play.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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