I feel there's too much attention to how "good" schools are, and not enough to their importance in building communities

clairedavis45's picture
I have an instinctive belief in local schools and a real suspicion of free schools and academies. I have 4 daughters aged 14, 11, 9 and 7 who are all thriving at school. I've recently become a community governor at the secondary school that my 2 eldest girls go to - Swanlea School - and am keen to build this school's reputation, especially among parents of girls.
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Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 06:54

If you want to destroy support for local schools, your headline is a good way to go about it. You cannot start arguing that standards are less important than nebulous concepts like "community" (what does "building communities" mean, exactly? Or even roughly?) and have the slightest hope of retaining any aspirational parents at all. Schools which try to excuse poor exam results with talk of community engagement in sport or extending links in the community are doomed, because the starting point has to be educational standards. Wrapping scare quotes around "good" implies you don't think that education outcomes are the mark of a good school; no-one who wants their child to succeed will touch a school with that ethos.

Educational standards are the sine qua non: once you have those, you can then talk about all the other desirable things that local schools can and should be doing. But the reason why the middle classes fled local schools was because of a (sometimes justified) belief that local schools would disadvantage their children in the name of vague social engineering policies, and your pieces strongly implies that's actually your position.

Now I'm sure that's not your intent, and you realise that a school that fails to provide good education (not "good" education: good education) is failing, and no amount of any other alleged benefits can outweigh that. And I'm sure you realise that just as no middle class parent will accept "well, my daughter failed her A Levels, but she's made friends over a wide social spectrum", no disadvantaged parent should have to either. But you need to make it much, much clearer what you're proposing. If the school has a reputation, it has to be founded on education; everything else is a desirable bonus, and to be praised, but is secondary. If local schools become a byword for "well intentioned, but ineffective" then all you are doing is acting as an recruiting sergeant for the private sector. The problem that (amongst others) Fiona Millar points to --- of articulate, supportive parents going elsewhere, leaving the local schools as second-best alternatives for a skewed intake --- has to be solved, and you cannot do that by setting educational outcomes off against other benefits; you have to deliver both.

A glance at your school's Ofsted report reveals it genuinely is outstanding, and one that any parent would be happy to send their children to. I really struggle to understand why you are wrapping quotes around good when your school clearly _is_ good, nor can I see why you think that its academic excellence isn't the best basis to improve its reputation.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 10:30

I disagree with the thrust of Tokyo's piece and would like to share Claire Davis's sentiment.

Too many "middle class" parents take one look at the league table and when they see their local comp isn't riding high they will try and secure a place for their child at a school outside the catchment area based on the league placing criterion.

What the founders and many contributors (including myself) of this website have realised is that for comprehensive schools to flourish they need balanced intakes and that often a school's low league placing is not the result of bad teaching but educated parents not prepared to support their local school.

When other parents saw an ex public school toff like me ready to put his kids through the much maligned local comp, others gradually caught on and the school is now highly sought after. I do not for one moment feel that my kids educational outcomes were in any way compromised by my decision.

I recall back in 1995 when my eldest started, and contrasting the stance taken by Anthony Blair passing up 50 nearer comprehensive schools to his home for the GM London Oratory with that of his (shadow) education secretary David Blunkett who chose the local comprehensive for his kids which had just a 22% GCSE pass rate for 5 or more GCSE pass rate (which didn't include English and Maths) and felt he gave a moral lead which deserved credit.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 11:24

"What the founders and many contributors (including myself) of this website have realised is that for comprehensive schools to flourish they need balanced intakes "

Unlike the founders of this site I went to a comprehensive school with a balanced intake, and I don't disagree with the general thrust of your point. However, you aren't making the same point Claire is. You're saying, accurately, that league table placings reflect intake as much as anything else, and that good educational outcomes cannot be measured by the league tables unless the intakes are compared. Which has been, to an extent, addressed with added value measures, although I think they are very badly explained. It's worth noting that most grammars do catastrophically bad in added value metrics, although it's an open question as to whether "getting kids who arrive illiterate through 5 middling-grade GCSEs", laudable though it may be, has a direct readacross to "getting kids who arrive ready for study eight grade As" as the skills and focus will be different.

However, that wasn't what I read into the original article. That the league tables tell you nothing about the quality of the school is I suspect common ground between us all; but I read the original article to imply that educational outcomes weren't as important as "community building" or whatever. You cannot argue that and hope to convince anyone with aspirations for their children. You have to start from "come to this school and your child will receive an education at least as good, and probably better, than elsewhere". The metrics by which you attempt to demonstrate that may be nuanced, and convincing parents that value-add isn't just excuse-making is a challenge. But you cannot say "oh, the results might be a big weaker, but hey, we all sing kum-bah-yah with a diverse and vibrant community" and hope to win many hearts and minds. Schools are about education. The rest comes once the education is working.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 12:44

Fair enough.

I think that most parents would want their children to maximise their potential as far as exam grades go and wouldn't want to trade off good exam results for community relations if it meant exam standards suffered. I don't see it as an either/or situation though.

Obviously education is far more than exam passes and drama, sport and social development - not least if it is with peers who live in the neighbourhood also play their part.

The emphasis of what a "good" school is, perhaps needs a broader definition, and how it can feature in promoting community values needs to be incorporated into that statement of meaning.

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 13:53

All parents want to maximise their child's potential with respect to exam results.
Additionally all parents are aspirational for their children regardless of background.

It is therefore unfortunate that quite a few on this site see this as elitism - it is not.

Many contributors on here have been boasting that the schools they support are outstanding because they have high FSM stats, ethnic diversity and are so inclusive that no-one is ever excluded.
Those with aspirations will always judge a school by it's educational outcomes.

Most parents

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 19:47

There's another point about parents' differing attitudes to schools. Chez Nambu, or I suspect chez Ford or chez Campbell-Millar or chez Benn, we have a wide range of educational attainment amongst the adults. We have two radically different first degrees and eight different A Levels, and I'm now a mature post-grad, so our ability to support and advise our children can smooth over any lacunae (if that's not mixing a metaphor) in the schools' provision.

When there was a threat of school closures over swine flu a couple of years ago we casually assembled the staff for evening tutorials to keep the children's education rolling, using parents, neighbours and the odd grandparent. Had we had to press 'go', we would have had university lecturers and/or appropriate senior professionals ready for every subject, plus a Booker Prize winning novelist to teach creative writing; I suspect that were Fiona to ring around her social circle she could do the same trick. So if our (where our means "the people who post here's") children to attend a school that had serious failings, they would still get a decent education, because we know how to identify the problems and we know how to fill the gaps, and if we can't do it ourselves we know how to get hold of people who can.

None of that's true for people without our advantages. They rely on schools to do education, because they could no more help their children with a bit of integral calculus or the German future tense (to name two recent homework crises) than they could run a four minute mile. The educated middle classes can afford to accept schools where the education isn't quite complete, because they know how to deal with that. Others can't, and I think it's very important to remember that.

George H's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 20:07

Tokyo Nambu.

You are unbelievably smug and narcissistic. This site is not a forum for you to boast of your intellectual prowess or academic advantages. And why exactly are you aligning yourself with the Benns and Campbell-Millars? Fiona is a person in her own right. Integral calculus? German future tense? Why don't you publish your memoirs and inadequacies and bore people who would buy your book rather than online?

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 20:38

Tokyo - it's a fair point even if you are overegging the pudding. I didn't pay for any private tuition for my kids education nor sought any outside help.

However, it is true that kids with academically able parents are more likely to inherit intelligent genes and coupled with an erudite home background are less likely to fall through the net if there are shortcomings at a comprehensive school.

But you (unwittingly) make the point why public schools are superfluous for children of middle class professionals. Many of them could sail through the exams at a comprehensive school with flying colours and their parents would save a small fortune. Furthermore the kids would get a better social development by mixing with a wider range of people. The schools would also benefit by having more balanced intakes so standards would rise.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 07:27

Nigel is right . Moreover vocal, articulate, aspirant parents (from whatever background) can help their local state schools to improve by supporting what is good, challenging where there are weaknesses, becoming governors, joining the PTA, helping to build confidence in the school locally. I could go on at length, having seen this happen in many of my own local schools, including the ones my own children were at. It is also very rewarding to be able to see change and improvement taking place. I have made some of my best friends through my local schools and have links in the local community that would have undoubtedly passed me by if we hadn't made these choices.

clairedavis45's picture
Sun, 22/05/2011 - 21:59

Wow. I wrote that comment in a hurry and have not been back to the site since. I had no idea that it would have generated all these comments.

What I meant about building communities was that when a school is attended by everyone who lives locally - by which I mean girls and boys from all the different social, ethnic and religious backgrounds which are present in that geographical area - then the friendships and bonds made at school can contribute to better understanding and mixing between all members of the local community. By contrast, when there is segregation in education, I think this helps to maintain barriers and separation between different groups within a local community.

I used quote marks around "good" because my observation of the way some families make choices about where they want their children to go to school does not seem to be about anything as clear cut as academic excellence. What many describe as a "good" school is actually just a school where they have watched others from the same social background send their children. I was not meaning to suggest that what goes on academically in a school is not important. But I don't think that the Tower Hamlets parents who send their children to schools miles away from this borough are doing that because they think they would do less well in their exams locally.

As you saw, Ofsted's most recent assessment of Swanlea rated it as outstanding including the academic education provided to its pupils. However, many families within an easy journey of this school do not even visit it. This is an issue I'm just beginning to think about. Your comments are helpful in reminding me to watch my language!


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 10:20

The trouble is that schools are judged on their league table position - this inevitably disadvantages schools whose ability range is skewed towards the bottom end. What is needed are more sophisticated ways of judging the effectiveness of schools. This would "dispel some of the overestimation of peer effects among parents that seems to be reflected in an excessive focus on sending children to schools where students have 'good' social backgrounds, perhaps neglecting other factors of school quality and children's well-being."*

*"Reforming Education in England", OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011, p101

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