Educational Failure By Definition

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Recent posts have elicited much comment about how LA comprehensive schools are allegedly failing low performing pupils in urban areas, and how Academies and Free Schools might address this problem.

There has also been much discussion about the fitness for purpose of the C grade at GCSE if it is to be used as a test of basic literacy and numeracy as well as the threshold to A Levels and university.

If a school is defined as failing for not getting pupils to achieve a C grade in English and maths, what does this say for the pupils that find themselves in this shameful category that is causing the failure of their school and the negative labelling of their communities? The failure label will not be new to most of those involved. The whole of the English education system is now structured with threshold ‘Levels’ that all children, regardless of cognitive ability, are ‘expected’ to achieve from the age of three.

In Y6, at the close of the primary phase of education the ‘expected’ attainment in the compulsory SATs exams is Level 4. As with secondary schools and GCSEs five years later, primary schools are designated as failing if they do not achieve the latest arbitrary target for the proportion of pupils ‘expected’ to achieve L4. A persistent proportion of children, especially in poor areas, fall into this failure category regardless of how obedient they are, how much they strive and how many hours, days and months of drilling and revision they have been subject to, only to find themselves on the same relentless treadmill towards GCSE ‘failure’ in their new secondary school.

On 16 January 2011, BBC Newsnight featured unofficial exclusions from Academies and the effect this was having on the proportions of pupils not entered for GCSE English and maths.

The BBC had researched the following data based on the 2010 GCSE results (source BBC Newsnight).

In Academies, 3.5 percent of pupils were not entered for English and maths GCSEs compared to 2.0 percent in Local Authority Community Schools.
21 percent of Academies had fewer than 95 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than double the proportion of any other school type). 9 percent of academies had fewer than 90 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than triple the proportion of any other school type). 2 percent of academies had fewer than 80 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE whereas all other school types had zero percent of schools which fall within this bracket.

When the DfE was asked to comment on these figures the response was as follows.

“We have taken a further look at the statistics and compared the stats for Academies with comparable schools - these are schools that have comparative characteristics (similar levels of deprivation and prior attainment). These stats show very little difference between Academies and other schools.
3.0% of children in comparable schools weren't entered for GCSE English and maths compared to 3.52% for Academies. a very similar statistic. And
29 of the 103 academies had a zero exclusion rate, compared to 31 of 103 comparator schools. Again - very similar.”

The DfE were making the point that the Academy pupils taking GCSEs in 2010 related to the sponsored Academies promoted and introduced mainly (but by no means exclusively) in poor areas, and they seemed to be arguing that this means they have to be compared with similar, mainly Local Authority (LA) schools whose alleged failure was the reason for their introduction in the first place. Given that even by massaging the figures in this way Academies still came out worse, it is hard to see the logic of this argument or where it leads.

Leaving aside that the DfE apparently had no explanation for why much higher proportions of Academies compared to LA schools failed to enter up to 20 percent of their pupils for GCSE English and maths, and the irrelevance of their cherry picking and anecdotal attempt to further cloud the issue, the truly shocking revelation was the apparent lack of concern by the DfE for any data that lie outside the indicators used to drive the annual performance tables and the blind eye applied to the poor performance of many independent Academy schools financed by the taxpayer.

The key question raised by the Newsnight programme was why any school would not want to enter every pupil for GCSE English and maths. It is not because grades less than C bring down the school’s key performance indicator of %5+A*-C including English and maths, because all pupils on the school roll count whether they are entered for GCSEs or not.

Parents can, however, be put under pressure to withdraw their less able child and seek a place in another school, which would improve results. Unlike Academies, community schools with surplus places cannot resist such parental applications. The only other way to remove poorly performing pupils so as to enhance the school’s results is by legal permanent exclusion, but this is a negative performance indicator suggesting poor discipline, and is taken into account by OfSTED in coming to their judgements.

The real reasons for non-entry may be much more troubling and relate to the concept of educational failure. Unsurprisingly, more spirited persistent pupil failures tend to become alienated and disruptive and they may then degrade the teaching/instruction/cramming/revision environment for all the E/D graders that the school is desperately trying to get up to a C. As permanent exclusion is too risky with OfSTED, a solution is to ‘get rid’ by arranging various forms of ‘alternative’ off-site education. The BBC Newsnight programme featured an example of a female student with a Statement of Special Educational Needs placed on a programme in which mainly boys were taught various cognitively undemanding craft skills in an off-site unit run by an ex-army officer.

She was not allowed to attend any classes at her Academy school and so she was not entered for GCSE English or maths in year 11. A headteacher on the programme admitted that such practice was common and described it as an example of, ‘the dark arts’ of headship.

The reason why this is more likely in Academies than in LA controlled schools is simply because Academies, being independent of LA control, can get away with it. It is not hard to predict what may happen in the new Free Schools, which don’t have to employ qualified teachers (or even qualified headteachers). Given the huge numbers of Armed Services personnel being made redundant and the enthusiasm of the DfE for more military discipline in schools it not difficult to see where this will lead. Behaviourism is the essential core philosophy of soldiering. As all these new Academies and Free Schools will be adding to the now thousands of taxpayer funded but independent schools outside any local democratic control or accountability, it is very hard how to see how they can possibly be effectively centrally regulated by the DfE, however enormous this centralised office of state government eventually becomes.

Learning from what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, It was with good reason that the designers of the 1944 Education Act specifically intended to make any such outcome impossible by making democratically elected Local Education Authorities, not the government, responsible for the provision of all state funded primary and secondary education.
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