Winners who sign up with losers

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Secondaries in suburbs of Birmingham believe league tables are harming their partnership and would like to be judged as a unit. Jim Kelly reports

A group of secondary schools spread across suburban Birmingham are engaged in a remarkable experiment in sharing. Tentatively they are swapping teachers, pupils, and resources. But the one thing they would really like to share is denied them - the freedom to abandon their individual school league table scores and publish their exam results as a single entity.

Remove this barrier, they argue, and their partnership would really flourish.

The theory behind so-called "corporate" performance scores is simple. If schools are jointly held accountable the best will help the weakest, and standards in the community as a whole will rise. But why are the five mainstream secondary heads in Birmingham's Oaks Collegiate Academy so keen, right now, on a single score for their pupils' performance at GCSE, especially as for some of them it means dropping down the dreaded league tables ?

The TES asked Birmingham education authority to calculate The Oaks'

combined GCSE performance data and the result - 44 per cent - is shown opposite alongside the scores for each school. As the figures show, three would be judged, by many parents, to turn out as "losers", while two would be "winners".

Composite reporting would also markedly alter the league table position of three of the schools in the ranking produced by The Times.

The schools in The Oaks want to collaborate more but believe the league tables hold them back.

"Collaborative working is an absolute brick of government policy but unless we are freed from the fetters of individual accountability, I can't see that we can go forward successfully in the longer term," says Lesley Brooman at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury - which sits on the leafy Bournville estate but takes pupils from surrounding, less middle-class, suburbs.

She says the Office for Standards in Education visited last year but largely ignored the school's collegiate role, concentrating rather on its performance as a unit.

Andrew Wright, head at Harborne Hill, would see his school rise 30 places to 43rd - the biggest winner in the group.

"I think that basically we want to move away from the 'my school's better than your school' culture - away from competition," he says.

The school has suffered from the tortured geography of Birmingham's state school provision. The demolition of inner-city schools, the growth of a strong private sector, and the long history of successful grammar schools have left schools like Harborne in affluent areas but with an intake bussed in from outside.

Mr Wright believes corporate reporting could help to end such distortions.

Hayden Abbott, at Lordswood boys', says he can justify supporting corporate reporting, despite the fact that his GCSE exam scores would drop. "We scored 47 per cent at GCSE last year - double the year before score of 24 per cent. But we need to sustain that improvement, and recruitment and retention are vital."

The collegiate is gaining a reputation for innovation, and collaboration provides staff with wide experience. Lordswood, for example, has a mainly black and Asian intake and its success in raising performance among these minorities is being shared within the collegiate "Teachers know what we stand for now and I am sure that if a vacancy came up we are likely to recruit within the collegiate. There is a collective commitment, a vision."

Frankley community high is, like many urban schools, a success story undermined by parental perceptions of its neighbourhood. Clive Owen, the head, thinks joint reporting could change what people think of the collegiate schools.

"I think it would remove the stigma that some schools have of being in difficult areas and labelled forever a weaker school."

Frankley scored 51 per cent last year, a strong result given it is in the middle of a tough estate. "With corporate reporting you get a broader picture of improvement without the bumps. You avoid the risk of creating a sink school."

The school with most to lose is Bournville. It scored 53 per cent last year and would lose nine points overnight under single-entity reporting.

Ruth Harker, the head, says the development of the Oaks as a group comprising a range of specialist schools, and the probable requirements of the Tomlinson inquiry to broaden curriculum options post-14, means Bournville will need the other schools to help it offer pupils the full range of subjects.

"We cannot provide absolutely everything," says Mrs Harker.

To help provide vocational education, for example, the Oaks has its own innovative craft training centre Quinzone.

"So in addition to the facilities we have here pupils will have access to the best the others have as well."

Bournville is the biggest school in the Oaks, with 1,300 students, and Mrs Harker believes she should help prepare them, and their parents, for a sea change in education: "In the future, students will be on individualised learning programmes - the fact is they might not have 100 per cent of their education in one school."

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