When it’s said a school has failed their students, it’s the most hurtful thing a teacher can hear – and it’s almost never true

There are so many misconceptions about the work of schools and most of them result in the blame being laid with the teaching profession. It’s just not on, argues one teacher-writer

Thomas Rogers

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The following words and phrases are used regularly when describing schools and their staff by politicians of all persuasions:

Failure, failing, coasting, underperformance, letting students down, raising standards, gaps widening.

Words and phrases used less widely include:

Success, achievement, teachers are great, teachers matter more than data, we are letting down our teachers, we are failing our teachers.

Some of the worst offenders when it comes to this constant denigration are those who should be the upholders and promoters of all that is good about our teachers and schools. They should also be the ones most aware of the impact of their words on the morale of teachers and schools and the capacity to influence, positively or negatively, the current recruitment and retention crisis.

Here are some classic examples from the archives:

'Secondary schools are not very good, in my view. If we're going to match the best jurisdictions in the OECD and elsewhere then we've got to improve our secondary school performance, and we won't get social mobility unless that happens.' Sir Michael Wilshaw, March 2016

"If these cities can provide a world-class education for youngsters at 18, why on earth are they failing to do so for too many at 11? At some point, politicians in Manchester and Liverpool will have to accept that the Northern Powerhouse will splutter and die if their youngsters lack the skills to sustain it." Sir Michael Wilshaw talking about schools in Liverpool and Manchester in January 2016

“I do want to see all schools over time become academies but I think our focus has got to be on the schools who are struggling and not doing well enough for children at the moment… Our hope and expectation is that schools will want to steadily take advantage of the benefits and advantages that academies can bring, but our focus will be on those schools where we feel that standards need to be raised.” Justine Greening, the new education secretary just last week in the House of Commons.

"Knowsley schools have already failed a generation and they are set to do so for yet another generation" Christopher Russel, OFSTED inspector 2016

And these comments are echoed time and time again, week on week, year on year.

But, they reflect a wider ignorance about what failure means in our education system and why, due to the parameters set, certain schools are failing.

Firstly, failure and success is clearly and solely quantified at the moment by two things; high stakes formative testing and Ofsted. Of course, the latter uses the results of those tests as the main basis for their judgements. They no longer focus on what they see happening in a school on their visit. They now prefer to look extensively at the schools own self-evaluation report and interrogate the exam data appropriate to that school. There are very few schools who achieve a “good” or better rating from the inspectorate whose results don’t sit “where they are supposed to” relative to students starting points.

So, we are saying that X amount of schools are “failing” and “letting students down” based on the exam results they achieve, at GCSE level in particular. However, here are several huge problems with this:

  1. Students sit the exams, not the teachers. At the end of the day, it’s the child who puts pen to paper. This is a fact that seems to have been lost in the all-encompassing branding of failure. A child makes a choice to revise, a choice to do homework and a choice to try and learn. Some would argue that in Britain, we have a problem where by many students simply don’t see any value in learning and have little desire to do so. Schools and teachers spend a lot of time “intervening” with a lot of students and parents when ultimately, they can’t change the outcome.
  2. Now schools are being judged and measured using “progress 8”, there are doubts about the consistency and validity of KS2 data, especially pre 2012 but also beyond. This is due to a range of factors including the reliance on teacher assessment, the constant changes to the form and content of assessments year on year, the strengthening agenda and high turnover of staff in some primary schools. Results can and will deviate. When secondary schools are measured based on their GCSE results versus children’s Key Stage 2 results, these massive permutations are not factored in.  
  3. High stakes, single exams, might not be an accurate or valid way of measuring the ability of particular students. Some students simply can’t produce in an exam hall, especially when it is one exam at the end of a two year process of study. A single hour or two to demonstrate what they know or can do. Some thrive in this environment, others don’t.
  4. The “failure” of a certain school often comes down to the differences between the results of different groups of students, for example pupil premium versus non pupil premium. This can be dictated by the character, resilience and ability of different groups of students. The school can have little bearing.

In saying all this; yes - there are good and bad teachers and yes - there are good and bad leaders. But this isn't about the quality within the profession, it’s about how all teachers and schools are measured. In my view, unfairly and without validity. 

When it’s said that a school has failed their students, this is the most hurtful thing a teacher can hear – that they have let down a child. If it were true, it wouldn’t be so bad. But I don’t think it is in so many cases. Let’s redefine “failure” and what failure means in schools. Let’s separate the child from the adult. Let’s separate the data from the daily. Let’s separate the exams from the learning. If we do these things, we might have a chance of seeing things with a bit more clarity. And keep a few more teachers in the classroom in the process.


Tom Rogers runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory

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Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is a history teacher

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