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Tear up this one-size suit - it's bespoke solutions that we need

Article | Published in TES Newspaper on 20 June, 2008 | By: Ben Slade

The head of a school on the GCSE hit list tells of the anger and hurt caused by the Government's plans

The head of a school on the GCSE hit list tells of the anger and hurt caused by the Government's plans

The Government set out plans last week to improve the 638 secondaries in England where fewer than 30 per cent of students achieve five good GCSE grades. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, says he wants every school to reach this minimum standard within three years, regardless of the particular circumstances individual schools face. He also warned that the Government might step in as early as this autumn where schools are not seen to be improving. No pressure then.

Mr Balls wants local authorities to take the lead, but has made it clear that if they don't intervene where there are problems, then he will. The stick is clearly being wielded; the carrot is a little more elusive.

And how did this beleaguered Government choose to launch this naive, belittling initiative to the schools in question? You've guessed it: on BBC Breakfast News. No thought seems to have been given to the fact that by doing it this way, pupils, staff, governors and heads are also branded "failures".

All this from a government that only recently emphasised the importance of judging schools on the progress pupils make, as measured by the contextualised value-added (CVA) score, rather than on raw GCSE results.

It will come as no surprise to readers that I am the principal of one of the 638 schools in the firing line. This is my first headship and I have been in the job for less than a year. Of course, we are far from complacent. We believe that we can do better and we do have strategies in place to challenge underperformance, raise standards and move forward. We have a clear plan for improvement. Yet the National Challenge strategy, under which Mr Balls announced his threat of closure, seems to assume that schools don't know what they are doing, and that heads do not have a plan for the way forward. This is distasteful, at best.

Our CVA score in 2007-08 was the second highest in the county and, at key stage 3, we were judged the "14th most improved school in the country", based on our CVA data for 2004-07.

Could we do better at KS4? Yes, of course we could, and we will this year and next. Does this mean that we are failing just because we didn't meet the 30 per cent figure last year? I think not.

Last week's announcements had a huge impact on our community. The local press ran a story under the headline "Schools face closure threat" (we are one of only three in our county), accompanied by an archive shot of me standing outside our college. Since then, students have been continually asking me, "Are we closing this term, Sir?" One Year 8 pupil said: "We aren't a very good school, are we? My mum saw it in the paper."

My staff work exceptionally hard and we are all hurt by this. It is an ill-thought through plan that has come out of nowhere and is based on nothing more than one set of statistics from last year. We are a small college, so one pupil not making the grade could mean the difference between 29 and 31 per cent and, potentially, the difference between a pat on the back or closure.

As part of the National Challenge, Mr Balls announced a doubling to £400 million of the money earmarked to help local authorities with school improvement. This should have been an opportunity to make a genuine difference in my college, and the other 637 across the country. But, as usual, headteachers are not trusted to spend this money wisely. It seems that the cash has already been committed.

First, up to 70 of the schools identified as "challenging" could be converted into academies, and a further 120 could be turned into trust schools. Then we discover that "each National Challenge school will be supported by a National Challenge adviser, who will take on and extend the role of the existing school improvement partner". This has riled me and other heads more than anything else. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is obsessed with advisers, national strategies and glossy pamphlets that profess to offer "the way forward" by citing a number of "case studies". The national strategy is far from a waste of time, but it is only a continuing professional development (CPD) resource. It doesn't solve the world's problems. The Government should stop paying former colleagues in excess of £500 per day and put the money into the schools that need it most.

I agree with Mr Balls that "no child and no school is on a pre-determined path to low results", but this is the wrong approach. We can indeed learn from other schools that have made improvements in the face of adversity. There is nothing wrong with CPD and extra courses, and the money would be helpful if properly spent.

The problem is that local authority support is driven by national targets and the national strategy. We have lots of support, and I welcome this, but it tends to rely on consultants coming to discuss data or to ask us to "respond" in some way to a government strategy. It is a "one size fits all" response that does not take any account of individual circumstances.

What local authorities should be allowed to do is work with heads and governors and ask the schools what would be a sensible package of support. This could include outreach work using advanced skills teachers, help with recruitment, more robust personnel support to deal with teachers with capability issues, clear protocols for exclusion, advice on curriculum development, and so on.

We don't need another audit, another adviser and another person to read out another government strategy and monitor our engagement with it. In many cases within the 638 schools, this approach has been followed for 10 to 20 years. It hasn't worked.

Ben Slade, Principal of Manor Community College, Cambridge.


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