In the book Into Thin Air, American journalist Jon Krakauer recounts being part of an Everest expedition that went tragically wrong (also the subject of the 2015 movie, Everest). He describes overconfident guides under pressure to succeed, warning signs that were ignored and a desire to push on regardless of the dangers ahead. Eventually, a human traffic jam en route to the summit was hit by a storm – with fatal consequences.
While the causes of the accident were many, it is clear that “summit fever” played a major part in what went wrong that day. Summit fever describes that collective urge to reach the mountain summit no matter what, even to the point of risking one’s life. It is a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who works in schools and something that school leaders, in particular, need to guard against.
Since the advent of national league tables, the crude five A* to C statistic has near-single-handedly driven summit fever in secondary schools. A relentless pursuit of a narrow GCSE school target has seen both staff and students suffer. Teacher quality has become narrowly defined by the performance of the students in their GCSE class.
Unsurprisingly, such demands have led to damaging practices that result in our students suffering. Yet we push on regardless.
The Department for Education and Ofqual have long been wise to this and they have, seemingly, taken some steps to prevent the damaging effects of schools being held to account by a singular target.
From this year, we will see the key measure of performance shifting from the five A* to C figure to the new Progress 8 measure, alongside other measures such as Attainment 8 and the percentage of students achieving the English Baccalaureate.
Yet the new target of Progress 8 performance, although apparently broader and fairer, could easily cause the same damaging effects as its predecessor. It still neglects important contextual factors and favours schools with high-ability intakes. Alongside such concerns, there is a real fear that creative subjects, like art and music, will be slowly eliminated from the curriculum to meet the requirements of the new target (bit.ly/Progress8arts).
What is real success?
To avoid schools being faced with the prospect of having to scale yet another summit, it is essential that the Department for Education, Ofqual and Ofsted better communicate to parents the new measures that will determine school league table success in the coming years.
Rather than paying attention solely to the “hero” schools that reach the summit of the Progress 8 table, we need to help people better understand real school success in all of its breadth and complexity. And school leaders themselves can make attempts to avoid summit fever, too.
A good start would be to question our own rigid reliance on internal target-setting and data. Schools can ensure that students still get to experience a broad and balanced diet of GCSEs, despite the undoubted pressures of external school targets.
We must also reject a curriculum designed to promote endless target-driven assessments, in the name of supposed school improvement, at the expense of actual learning.
School leaders and teachers need to take care to spot the warning signs around target-setting for our own students, too. For every student who is inspired by having a raft of A* targets (soon to be 8s and 9s), there are others who are lumped into endless revision sessions after school and on weekends because they are “failing” to meet their targets.
Recent evidence of a 200 per cent increase in the number of Childline counselling sessions that mentioned exam stress should give us reason to consider our own target-setting methods (bit.ly/TESexamstress). We also have to be pragmatic in our response to accountability pressures and know the narrative of our school’s data to fend off summit fever.
By understanding the historic and future data trends of our school’s student outcomes (using the Education Endowment Foundation Families of Schools database is very useful for this end), we can fend off the obsession with any single set of exam results.
We can also survey the landscape for intelligence that cuts through any data-driven madness, like Education Datalab’s article “Seven things you might not know about our schools” (bit.ly/schools7things).
Every school leader naturally wants their students to scale the heights of success, but if our teachers and students are to survive and thrive on the journey, we need to take great care to exercise our best judgement
Alex Quigley is director of research at Huntington School in York. His new book, The Confident Teacher, will be available in May.