A support network giving families a helping hand could be behind the unexpected achievements of inner-city specialist schools, writes Cyril Taylor.
THERE is now consensus across the political spectrum and among most educationists that schools should be accountable to their students, parents and the taxpayer.
Modern jobs require a high degree of skill and pupils leaving school without these skills face a lifetime of unemployment. At the current time, schools are judged primarily by their performance in public examinations, such as key stages 1, 2 and 3 and GCSE, with no reference to their differing intakes.
David Blunkett said recently that even in socially-disadvantaged areas, 25 per cent of pupils should be achieving five A* to C GCSE passes by 2006 and, indeed, last week announced his new City Academies initiative as a way of achieving this. The Technology Colleges Trust strongly supports the new programme. But the trust believes that schools in socially-disadvantaged areas should also be judged on a value-added basis, comparing GCSE results at age 16 with the results of the same pupils at key stages 2 and 3.
Many inner-city secondary schools have a large proportion of pupils with literacy and numeracy difficulties upon entry at Year 7.
Unfairly, some schools have a large number of excluded pupils from other schools, while others have high pupil mobility or high concentrations of socially- and economically-disadvantaged families, including single parents, high eligibility for free school meals and pupils whose first language is not English.
Clearly, it is unfair to compare the performance of these schools directly with suburban schools, many of which do not face such challenges.
The trust recently commissioned Professor David Jesson of York University to prepare a value-added study comparing predicted and actual GCSE results for 1999 from 330 specialist schools designated before 1999.
This study uses Department for Education and Employment data on key stage 3 results in 1997 to predict what level of GCSE results these schools should have achieved in 1999 and it compares these predictions with actual GCSE results.
This analysis shows encouraging results for a large number of inner-city specialist schools. For example, it was predicted that just 24 per cent of pupils at Small Heath Technology College in Birmingham would achieve five A*-C GCSE passes, yet the actual result was 47 per cent. Pupils at St Paul's Way Arts College in Tower Hamlets had apredicted rate of 4 per cent but achieved 29 per cent, while Selly Park girls school in Birmingham had an expected rate of 28 per cent, yet achieved 52 per cent.
Overall in 1999, 52 per cent of pupils at the 330 specialist schools achieved five A*-C GCSE passes, compared with a predicted rate of 46.5 per cent and 41 per cent (predicted and actual) for all comprehensive schools. Why do so many specialist schools perform so well?
Professor Jesson has identified a number of key reasons. These include: bidding for and retaining specialist school status; testing pupils upon entry at age 11 to identify those requiring remedial help; support given by able headteachers and department heads in many specialist schools; a focus on achievement and an ethos of high expectation; the "locomotive" effect of good results in one or more specialist subjects raising performance in all subjects; the widespread use of innovative ICT-based instruction and GNVQ awards from age 14.
He also mentions the modest, but important, extra funding for specialist schools.
Meanwhile, conversations with inspiring headteachers such as Martin Coles at St Paul's Way and Cecil Knight at Small Heath, indicate that there is a further crucial ingredient for success: both schools are providing extensive support to families - in many cases, these are single-parent families. This support includes substantial efforts to make these schools into havens of safety with firm but caring discipline.
The schools open at 8am and usually remain open until 6pm or later. This extended day, both for formal teaching and out-of-school activities, offers additional support to pupils who would otherwise return to an empty home because the single parent is working.
Breakfast and an early evening meal are provided for pupils who might not be adequately fed otherwise. In particular cases, free school uniforms are provided.
Counselling and sometimes mentoring by volunteers is provided.
Parents are encouraged to visit the school on a regular basis and take evening classes.
The TCT encourages successful inner-city specialist schools to partner others at a lower level of achievement. Thus, we are creating an extended family network of our own.
We are also identifying best practice and would welcome information on how other successful inner-city schools have improved their results.
Cyril Taylor is chair of the Technology Colleges Trust. The full value-added study is available at www.tctrust.org.uk