How far can heads be held responsible for poor results?

Janet Downs's picture
The departure of the head of Wellington Academy following poor GCSE results raises several questions:

1 How far can a head be held responsible for a school’s raw exam results?

2 If heads are expected to fall on their swords then should governing bodies and/or sponsors also do so?

3 Is there a perfect storm of circumstances which could prevent schools reaching Government benchmarks?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) discovered many “below-floor” schools were in fact doing a good job in difficult circumstances. But judged by raw results they were failing.

So, question 3 is particularly relevant here: what circumstances, particularly if combined, could have a negative impact on a school’s results? These could include:

1 A large number of disadvantaged pupils. This has a negative effect on all pupils, advantaged and disadvantaged, who attend such a school. This effect is worse in the UK than in other countries (OECD). Teachers in such schools “are likely to face greater challenges than teachers with students from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds” (OECD).

2 An intake skewed towards the bottom of the ability range.

3 An unstable pupil population with children entering and leaving the school at different times.

4 A large number of pupils who are not fluent in English*.

5 A large proportion of pupils with Special Educational Needs.

6 Children whose circumstances distract them from learning**.

7 A number, which doesn’t have to be large, of pupils who don’t wish to be in school. Their misbehaviour takes up a disproportionate amount of teacher time.

Most of these factors are outside the control of schools (unless, of course, schools which are their own admissions authority manage to manipulate their intake to reduce the numbers of such pupils – see the concerns of the Academies Commission here).

Teaching can, of course, make a difference. Education Secretary Michael Gove is right there. But it can’t work miracles. For some children, preventing them from dropping-out would be a success. But this doesn’t show up in league tables based on results***.

It’s unfair in such circumstances to automatically blame heads. It’s similar to the situation whereby football coaches are sacked if the team plays poorly. But if soccer coach syndrome takes hold in English schools then it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find heads to lead schools which show some of the challenges listed above. And just as difficult to find teachers to commit themselves to sticking it out.

Climbing aboard a school in a perfect storm could be career suicide.


*Note: this is not the same as pupils who have English as an Additional Language (EAL) but are fluent in both languages. This is found to confer advantages to both the children and the schools they attend.

** This doesn’t just mean negative factors such as neglect. It could include other situations such as living in an area disproportionally affected by crime or children having to act as carers. In the case of Wellington Academy many of the children had parents serving in Afghanistan. This is bound to increase anxiety among all pupils.

***The OECD warned two years ago that there was excessive emphasis on raw exam results in England.

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