You can’t measure schools by exam results alone

23rd February 2018 at 00:00
Ignoring the outstanding achievements of pupils at schools in poor areas has damaging consequences

A number of media events in the year will cause a sinking feeling for many schools trying hard in adverse circumstances, especially those located in areas of multiple deprivation.

The first, in August, is exam results time. No matter how hard teachers and pupils have worked, or the composition of this year’s exam cohorts, some schools’ 5+ Highers headline figures will be found wanting. These results are deemed the only acceptable way of judging a school by mainstream journalists and, therefore, by parents, councillors and other worthies who do not understand how to delve deeper into school performance.

The second comes later in the year when the figures are dissected and presented again in the Sunday Times Parent Power supplement, which compiles lists of the UK’s “top” schools on a regional basis. Once again, this year, the editorial states that the production of such lists is a way of empowering parents, but the crude measurements used are a very blunt instrument by which to measure disparate schools serving many different contexts.

So, as I look down the list of the most recent winners, I wonder once more what it means to be “top”. I see, among the schools ranked highly, those that have been lambasted in the press and by government officials for their lack of application in providing safeguarding for their pupils; others for which the press has reported drug problems among their older pupils; and some that have been the focus of damning reports in the media for failing to prevent bullying so extreme that it has resulted in life-changing injuries for the victims.

By which measure, other than academic achievement, can some of these schools possibly be considered adequate as places that provide quality experiences for our young people? Is it good enough that we laud high attainment while pupils may be unhappy or unsafe? I say it is time for a new narrative – one in which we hail measures that really show what young people are capable of.

My own school is located in an area of high deprivation. Children arrive – as they do at our cluster primaries – with levels of numeracy and literacy far below those of children who live 10 minutes’ walk away on the other side of the river. Physical and mental health and wellbeing similarly lag behind, and they live in a catchment area characterised by low life expectancy and poor socioeconomic indicators.

‘Little-valued’ qualities

Yet, despite all of this, on a day-to-day basis, many of our young people – helped by dedicated and incredibly hard-working staff – have huge opportunities to succeed on many levels. For some, just getting into school, having cared for their younger siblings while their parents are at work, is a pretty good start, and it is teaching them skills that, with the right direction, will build the resilience they need to get on in life. The problem is how to measure these qualities when they appear little-valued by wider society.

As they go through school, these pupils have opportunities to take part in outdoor learning on the school farm, to take leadership roles from a young age, to mentor our primary pupils and to help in the selection procedure for new staff. They can also work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Saltire Awards in volunteering, and participate in Mentors in Violence Prevention and the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative.

Many who entered high school at Level 1 and early Level 2 of Curriculum for Excellence go on to gain national qualifications in, for instance, practical woodworking or practical cake craft (although the bizarre introduction of an exam for these latter qualifications may put paid to that success). Many contribute to the growth we have seen in 1+ Higher statistics over the past few years. But, outside of our school, who is paying attention?

Through the hard work of our staff and other agencies who work with us – their nurturing and mentoring attitude and their love for the individual children who come with complicated and chaotic backstories – the vast majority of our children leave to engage in worthwhile pursuits. The percentages entering higher education are lower than for all of our local schools, although they still show remarkable achievement for many of our pupils. But almost a third of our school leavers will go to college at the end of S4 or S5 and work their way into gainful employment. Thanks to the foresight of the college structure, many go through different levels and, from the strong base they have in education, eventually leave with a powerful combination of qualifications and work experience. Our positive-destination figures are above the national average and something worth shouting about. But, again, nobody is listening.

Celebrate wider achievements

Something needs to change, and soon, to stop deprived communities from suffering the loss of esteem and constant knocking that comes from an extremely narrow view of success based solely on Scottish Qualifications Authority exam results. Surely four, five or more years of studying and taking part in activities that build lifelong skills for work, life and learning is worth more than a judgement on a couple of hours spent at an exam desk – where the quality of a night’s sleep beforehand, or whether or not a candidate has a full stomach, may be the greatest influence on how they perform.

Some appealing suggestions have been made as to what could be done. Academic and former secondary headteacher Danny Murphy, for example, has put forward the idea of a school-leaver graduation certificate which, while recognising academic achievements, would also “include the variety of ways in which different young people achieve and bring value to our communities”.

What is blindingly obvious is that the system, as it stands, is broken and requires a wider debate as to how it could be fixed. Only then will we truly value the wider achievements, qualities and skills of our young people, and give them the hope they need to succeed in the 21st century.

John Rutter is headteacher at Inverness High School

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