Secondary schools between a rock and a hard place: a Labour response

Anonymous submission

I am chair of governors at a secondary school in a deprived town in Northern England.  We remain, like many schools in our region, a maintained school out of the clutches of the academy system, at least for now.

As such, I found the speech on Friday by the new Ofsted Inspector Amanda Spelman interesting, and in some ways refreshing.  This was the bit that caught my eye particularly:

[W]e know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results. That is nothing short of a scandal where it happens. Childhood isn’t deferrable: young people get one opportunity to learn in school and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep.

As I have said many times before, there is more to a good education than league tables. Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.

So I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.

And that is why I’m announcing today that I have chosen the curriculum to be the focus of the first big thematic Ofsted review of my tenure. From early years, through to primary, secondary, sixth form and FE colleges, this will explore the real substance of education.

There is much to agree with here (despite the hectoring tone).

The problem is that Ofsted is just one source of authority making the judgements on school like ours by which we stand or fall.

The other source of authority is the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC), a position imposed in 2014 under Michael Gove’s disastrous tenure as Minister for Education.

The job of these commissioners has been, from the beginning, to push schools towards academy status.   A key way of doing this now is to use the ‘coasting schools’ as defined in January 2017, and all over the country RSCs have been grabbing this recently validated data and writing out to secondary schools demanding explanations.

This definition is focused solely on exam data from the previous three years, the last year of which (the summer 2016 exams) are measured under the new ‘Progress 8’ measurement, a move aways from the more familiar ‘% of pupils gaining % or more GCSE incl, Maths & English).

What is more, the Progress 8 measurement deliberately requires at least 3 ‘Ebacc’ subjects (essentially, the more traditional subjects in science, humanities and languages) in addition to Maths and English, and imposes a zero score in one ‘bin’ of the overall calculation if this is not done.

In addition, the measurement guidance seeks to force English literature into the curriculum for all students, by imposing this requirement:

If a student sits both English language and English literature, the higher grade is double weighted in the English slot. If only GCSE English literature or English language is taken then this qualification will count in the English slot, but will not be double-weighted.

The effect of this is that students not suited to English literature are being pushed through it anyway by schools – to the exclusion of wider curriculum choice – because without it their English language qualification counts for only half in the scoring.

Overall then, under the dual authority now in places, secondary schools* are operating in a bizarre system where they stand to be penalised both for:

  • narrowing the curriculum in a way which Ofsted now  considers might not be “broad, rich and deep” enough; and for
  • not narrowing the curriculum sufficiently to ensure that they avoid the DfE/RSC coasting definition, which applied by measuring a narrow range of exam results

This is what is called being between a rock and a hard place.

It comes as a result, first of Michael Gove’s antediluvian approach both to the curriculum and to the schools that deliver it, and now of the government’s incapacity even to understand what a mess has been made.

Labour should be challenging this appalling mess wherever it can, by championing the Ofsted version of what education should be about, which post-Wilshaw is better than it has been for years.   It needs to do this by exposing the enduring legacy of Gove, who continues to cast a spell over the school system via the Regional Schools Commissioner system, and which the current incumbent Justine Greening seems too weak to do anything about.  More widely, this should form part of a wider strategy of taking on the government for ignoring the basics of domestic governance, fiddling with Article 50 while our education system burns.

This kind of challenge should with broader attempts to challenge the government’s basic competence under May.   Tying her to Gove, who for a large section of the population now lies discredited because of his Brexit antics, and arguing that her government is too incompetent to unravel his mess, will probably be more effective than the current efforts to highlight the NHS crisis, for the simple reason that, on a daily basis, more people are affected by their children/grandchildren being failed by an incoherent system than re hit by A&E waiting times.

*I focus here on secondary schools, because that is my area of expertise.  However, the same dilemma applies to primary schools, with a DfE coasting definition dependent solely on Key Stage 2 SATS data, and the same tension between Ofsted’s insistence on a rounded curriculum and experience and the DfE/RSC pressure, which leads schools to narrow the offer as they strive to get young children through tests.

This has the added knock on effect that much of the wider preparation for secondary school that primary schools used to undertake is squeezed out, meaning that a significant percentage of 11 year old arrive at secondary school with decent SATS but unable to progress from there because they do not have the social skills to cope with the new environment.

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