Ashington High School - Can this be right?

John Mountford's picture
I came across this article on the BBC website and it made me think.

Underlying this story are two important factors. First, Ashington High School Sports College was placed in special measures in February, following their most recent Ofsted inspection. Second, also recently, the school seems to have begun working as part of Partners in Exellence club schools (PiXL), to help raise standards.

PiXL was founded by former headteacher, Sir John Rowling, with the express aim of helping schools to work together with a shared sense of moral purpose. This is what PiXL has to say about its aims:

“The PiXL Club, Partners in Excellence, works with over 1000 secondary schools, 400 Sixth Forms, 40 PRUs and 170 Primary Schools. Our focus is on raising standards at GCSE, A level and Key Stage 2. The PiXL Club aims to support the promotion of excellence for pupils. It is determined to do all it can to improve life chances for young people through improved educational achievement and enhanced self-esteem in order to connect them to worthy progression routes in the next stage of their education.”

In case you were left in any doubts, they sum up their raison d’etre – “At the heart of PiXL there remains the moral imperative to do the best we can for all students whatever their ability.”

Note what it says about enhanced self-esteem for all students. How then, does this statement and the obvious intention of club members to help students achieve higher grades square with the recent actions of the SMT at Ashington High School that have caused such a sharp reaction from parents?

What has happened here creates other questions that also need to be answered.

Has the recent inspection outcome created so much pressure that professional judgements at the school have been skewed? Did the school’s performance under the watchful eye of Ofsted precipitate a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to their predicament? How happy should we be that pupils are named in this manner? Does applying this particular procedure have the inevitable consequence of ‘shaming’ certain groups and individuals? If this is the case, should someone be preparing to monitor the impact on pupils? How certain can we be that some of the techniques employed to raise the performance of pupils are aimed primarily at making the schools look better? I could go on.

Meanwhile at Ashington, after receiving complaints from some parents about the poor timing of a specific strategy to engage students more by focusing on ‘transparent communication’, a school spokesman made the following comment -

“One of the strategies PiXL has introduced has focused on transparent communication with students ensuring they are aware of their relative ability levels prior to entering examinations.

“The intention is then to provide whatever support or resource each individual student requires in order to achieve improvement.

“We understand this is an innovative approach and may not be something parents experienced for themselves in school.

“At Ashington High School we want what is best for our students and their welfare is our priority. We always encourage parents and students to share feedback with us which we use to inform our future strategy.”

Clearly, despite the school’s good intentions, and knowing the positive impact that transparent communication can have in all sorts of settings, this spokesman does not appreciate that parental concerns are well founded and I have to say I agree with them. Surely, the point is not that “this is an innovative approach and may not be something parents experienced for themselves in school.” – which sounds very patronising in itself. It is rather that choosing to implement this particular approach so close to the actual examinations has, in the words of one parent, knocked the confidence of those who fared poorly in the assessment of their exam potential “By launching this only last week the school hasn't given these children enough time to improve their performance. All it has done is wreck their confidence,"

Another point made by the school in its defence seems to be that the introduction of this particular strategy enables staff “to provide whatever support or resource each individual student requires in order to achieve improvement.” You can really do this in the time scale we seem to be talking about??

But, sadly, it isn’t just the lower ability students who appear to have suffered as a result of this belated move to ‘up the ante’ over grades by publishing, albeit in-house, a list ranking students in ability from top to bottom.

“Everybody could see where everyone was on the table,” said one parent. “My daughter knows the pupil who was ranked number one and friends she has known for years are now saying she thinks she’s better than everyone else.

“It’s all down to this ridiculous ranking system the school introduced last week.

“It was very public my daughter tells me. Around 249 children were taken to the old caretaker’s bungalow where their names were all up on a notice board.” (See here)

Now, I don’t expect there to be a universal outcry about this story BUT, as far as I am concerned, it raises some very basic and important questions about the possible direction and specific focus of school improvement.

Even if ALL school leaders do know what is best for their students, shouldn’t they be expected to implement, with care, only those strategies, after careful consideration, that they are pretty confident will work in their setting given sufficient time?

Are we really to believe that the end justifies the means? Do we really want to see a return to the practice of posting all children’s results for everyone to share (I remember the weekly class spelling charts in primary school with some discomfort still)?

I am for raising the bar for all children but, I do wonder how many strategies currently used to achieve this outcome would still be in place if we ended the current, insane practice of ranking school against school, nation against nation? Is what has happened at Ashington High an indication of where this system will lead if we do not abandon the frequent application of high-stakes testing?

The Guardian has a very thoughtful piece giving further background on PiXL. I believe they offer opportunities for the kind of networking that can help schools develop in the future, especially if politicians do the right thing and ‘but out of education’, as I am calling for at,
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/05/2015 - 11:56

I saw this story and wondered what possessed the school to think publicly ranking children would raise results. Those not at the top (the majority) get demoralised; those near the bottom wonder if it's worth making any effort and might even skip the exam; and those at the top, far from being spurred on, can become complacent and over-confident.

PiXL's approach seems to be fixated on raising performance - this can lead to teaching to the test and doesn't result in deep learning. It also appears to advocate double entry - this adds to the already excessive exam load on our 16 year-olds.

There was a time when schools collaborated without paying out money to do so. But competition between schools combined with people making money out of what schools used to do freely means altruistic collaboration becomes less likely.

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 08/05/2015 - 18:12

My concern, massively increased on the back of the election result, is that the focus of education is inevitably set to narrow unless professional leadership gains in confidence and strength. I wholeheartedly agree with your point about teaching to the test, Janet. It is unfortunate if heads and senior leaders 'jump' to apply 'sticking plaster solutions' and we cannot be sure that if self-help groups focus disproportionately on performance, this kind of outcome will be seen more frequently. Schools are, after all, about to be exposed to 'zero tolerance' of failure on a scale not yet known, if the new government's pre-election announcements are implemented.

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 08/05/2015 - 14:56

"Has the recent inspection outcome created so much pressure that.."

Or was the recent inspection outcome an inevitable consequence of a school that would make this kind of decision?

I wonder how that relative ability was derived and whether they included error bars. Actually, just forgot the error bars because hardly anyone does that. Y7 Sprogette is one of at least two children who knows where she ranks in Y7 in terms of CAT score. Everyone could find out where they rank for that in terms of the national percentiles.

One day she was in the back seat of the car chatting to the long-standing very best friend (VBF) who has interventions for reading. For some reason the VBF said something about being rubbish at reading and Sprogette's reply began "But it's not your fault...".

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 08/05/2015 - 15:04

[I keep doing this accidental post]

...One of the anecdotes I've seen quite a few times now is how some child got a a diagnosis of this or that affecting their ability and they were more confident, made more effort and were more successful doing whatever they were struggling with, because there was a reason for the struggle and it wasn't their fault. In those kind of terms I don't see any difference between a child knowing they have wiring that makes them dyslexic or wiring that puts them low down the ability rankings.

I wouldn't dream of playing with that for a whole year group or without very expert advice though, because it might only work for a small number.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 09:21

PiqueABoo - there's nothing wrong with using tests to judge whether pupils have grasped what they've been taught or have a problem. Teaching can then be planned in the light of this evidence. But making scores and ranking public is not an acceptable use of this data. As I said, it potentially makes high scorers over-confident and complacent, while those at the bottom think it's a waste of time trying.

Why should everyone one know where they rank in terms of national percentiles? How can telling a child s/he's in the bottom 10% (or even the top 10%) be helpful? It can become dangerous: Boris Johnson said those with low IQ were “already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth”.

When IQ, percentiles, ranking etc is used to make a judgement about the 'spiritual worth' of those at the bottom, it affects how these are treated (and possibly how they behave). Perhaps, as Boris suggested, they can expect to be crushed like cornflakes at the bottom of the box.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 11:01

From what I understand about the strategy it seems that - and how often does this crop up - that it is particularly blunt variation of an existing strategy. Moreover, and having worked in the secondary sector in that locality, the adoption of this variant comes as no surprise to me. The school has a history and culture of jumping through hoops to gain favour with DFE as opposed to doing what is best by the pupils.

I have worked in and know of many schools that use a range of starting points to group their pupils into expected achievement groups (e.g. FFT estimated targets, CATS, and predictions based KS2 data). From this they refine/re-evaluate their projections based on KS3 tracking data and then use this to monitor, support and intervene either on a class group and/or pupil x pupil basis. A key issue is that this enables pupils to be grouped by expected outcomes within each subject and by floor targets and in the more effective strategies the groups have a lead teacher who uses the tracking to inform 1:1 meetings with the pupils and liaise with colleagues. What doesn't happen is the PiXL transparency element of publicly listing all the pupils. I consider the latter to be abhorrent and wholly disconnected from the acknowledgement that pupil progress must be anchored in their individual starting points in Y7.

Shame on PiXL and Ashington HS for using such a callous and injudicious strategy that has no educational foundation at all and is rooted in crude psychological and emotional pressure.

PiqueABoo's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 16:46

“It can become dangerous”? If you want some real risks to play with then perhaps it’s time to catch up with the 21st century and Google “CRISPR-Cas9”: my tenner says the moratoriums won’t hold and some genetically improved people will walk the earth during my child's lifetime. I’d expect genetic disorders to be the first targets, but Moore’s law will surely serve up some other obvious things to edit by-and-by.

Meanwhile as a parent I see my job as attempting to guide a child towards one of those very elusive, fulfilling and contented adult lives. Schools are insanely tight-lipped courtesy of risk-avoidance and the current fixation with labelling, so any information I can get that helps inform me about places where my child might be able to fit in the world as an adult is very important to me. Sprogette’s CAT score in terms of the national percentile was very helpful: it’s an imperfect proxy for “potential” and guarantees nothing, but that’s much better than knowing nothing.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 18:11

I'm sorry, PiqueABoo, but your second paragraph puzzles me. Of course you are entitled to your opinion about 'contented and fulfilling adult lives' in that you see them as hard to come by. There is no evidence to back this up and, (anecdotally, of course) I disagree with your conclusion about the rarity of this state of being in adult life.

My observations of, and engagement with pre-school children over three decades in teaching convinces me that the number entering the education system already struggling with their feelings of self-worth is sadly on the increase. What are we to make of this, if it is an accurate assessment, and how are schools to combat it?

I accept wholeheartedly that, in an ideal world, parents have a right to know all they can from teachers about the performance of their child. I agree with your comment that there is a 'fixation' with labelling (though I wonder where you believe this mindset originates) and I agree that teachers may well be increasingly risk-averse in the present blame-driven culture. My question to you is, would you accept that teachers may not be the best source to consult about where a child may fit into the adult world? (I assume you are referring to career options as you mention 'places' where your child might fit in.)

For my part, I am of the opinion that teachers, especially those who have arrived in post having taken the route from school (as a child) to university and back to school (as an adult) with no specialist training in career guidance along the way and only brief periods of work experience to call upon, are not well placed to offer the kind of advice you may be looking for. At the risk of upsetting a whole sub-group of professionals, I fear that in-school careers advice is often of dubious value and is certainly not consistent across the system.

In view of the fact that you highlight the imperfection of CAT scores, etc. as a proxy for guaranteeing individual 'potential', much less happiness, how do you regard the act of ranking young people accordingly, in view of the "danger" of this practice, referred to by Janet, and my original concern in bringing this story to the network?

It is rather sad if your own experience of education has been so lacking that CAT scores, with all the caveats they trow up if used to predict future personal well being, are "better than knowing nothing".

If this is your experience of modern education practice, and it is a widespread phenomenon, it is a further indictment of the inadequacy of some professionals and their commitment to partnership with parents and may indicate they are in need of re-education themselves!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 13:23

Am I missing something here? No-one is saying, are they, that pupils and parents shouldn't be informed of their scores on standard tests like CATs as well as on various tests of attainment? I though this was called 'Assessment for Learning'.

The point is that this is private information. For a school to be publishing rank order lists of such data is outrageous. Is it legal under DPA?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 20:07

It does seem strange for a school such as Ashington to do this? I like Ashington ...if I'm not mistaken Ashington was the first , if not the only, school in the early 2000's to challenge the traditional school leadership model and put an effective and degree qualified Youth Leader onto the Senior Leadership Team . Mind you they had to pay him at a lower salary band and up his salary to leadership level via a "Consultancy payment"....

Andy V's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 11:43

May well have been Rosie but my recollection from 2004 - 6 was that this was at Hirst High School, Ashington not Ashington High.

PiqueABoo's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 15:28

Well I'm struggling to think of anyone I know who seems content with their life, but everyone seems stressed. Perhaps it's different on the right side of our local tracks, but mea culpa, I forgot to commission or cherry-pick something with little more than a whiff of solid science and a lot of Hawthorn effect that the education world so often calls evidence. [When it comes to evidence, education sorely needs more people like Nick Rose, the Evidence into Practice blog author: ]

I do think AHS’s actions were wrong and to borrow one of Nick’s phrases it sounds like a very “poorly implemented psychological intervention” and one with very poor timing. However, in my limited experience children already tend to know where they rank in everything and having spent five years in each other’s company they probably know that quite well, so I’m not convinced it was that harmful. None of anecdotes the mothers took to the press (as you do these days) obviously supported the assertions that lots of children’s confidence was crushed. Was it damaging in vicarious principle or in practice?

“Mindset” = leading question? Probably sourced in sociology or something way back in the mists of time, but around here the recent source appears to be Syed’s bouncy interpretation of Dweck’s mindsets with the Gladwell’s take on 10,000 hours in Outliers as opposed to their later face-saving clarification. Then of course there’s Jo Boaler who gets everywhere telling us that any child can be anything given the right nurture: well good luck with that teachers because it’s clearly your job to turn them all into doctors and brain surgeons.

I’m not looking for specific careers advice from teachers, I simply want credible information about my child’s competence in school-stuff. Strengths and weaknesses. Propensities. Simple opinions.

What we get at secondary is pure data with too many remarkably dodgy teacher predictions and the algorithmic KS2 SATs derived predictions of end-year levels, with traffic light colouring for the differences. What we don’t get is anything to say where the teacher thinks they are now and certainly nothing human. Similarly the ‘partnership’ is largely a one-way street where the school issues instructions to parents that are clearly concerned with maintaining/improving their Ofsted rating (they don’t explicitly mention Ofsted). This school and probably lots of others, has let their bureaucratic internal/infernal measuring and box-ticking processes seep into nearly every corner of their relationships with parents. It's one thing for people around here and elsewhere to repeatedly argue the case for disappearing league tables and Ofsted, but I suspect schools like this won’t know how to fill the void.

I Googled and strictly speaking the AHS ability ranking was attainment ranking because it was apparently based on mocks etc.

Brian's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 17:24

'Well I’m struggling to think of anyone I know who seems content with their life, but everyone seems stressed.'

Lots of reasons for stress I guess but just about everyone I know is at least content with their life, but that doesn't mean everything is coming up roses! And there is a link to education policy ... politicians are able to exploit the 'if it's not perfect it's rubbish' view which so many people hold in order to make ever more ridiculous demands of our schools and young people.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.