'EXCUSES' When two free schools run by the Seckford Foundation in Beccles and Saxmundham posted disappointing GCSE results, local MP Therese Coffey tweeted: ‘I'm sure @SeckfordSuffolk is disappointed with Sax results. Right to have a review though this year group was predicted to be challenging’. But claiming a cohort was ‘challenging’ would not be an acceptable reason for poor results in a non-free school - ‘No excuses’ is the mantra.
But 'no excuses' fails to recognise that there are legitimate reasons why some schools return results below the mandated benchmark:
1 An intake skewed to the bottom end.
2 High staff turnover leading to lack of continuity, inconsistency and children being taught by non-specialists.
3 Pupil churn – a large number of pupils entering and leaving in each academic year.
4 A large number of children with poor or no English. This is made worse if the numbers arriving are erratic. Stuart Jackson MP, has spoken eloquently about how this affects schools in Peterborough.
5 Disadvantage. I can already hear the cries accusing me of ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. But pointing out that disadvantage is a handicap is not being a bigot. I know disadvantage can be overcome; I know it’s not destination. But it’s a handicap, nevertheless.
One overlooked finding in the OECD 2010 briefing paper about UK PISA results was this: both disadvantaged AND advantaged pupils tend to do worse than might be expected in schools where there is a large proportion of disadvantaged pupils. This was a global, not just a UK, phenomenon. The socio-economic composition of a school’s intake does matter.
These factors are rarely taken into account by politicians or inspectors. Results, it appears, are all that count irrespective of context.
But it’s worth remembering the two free schools above had been judged Good – poor results don’t necessarily mean the education provided is equally poor.
CULTURAL EXPERIENCE FOR OXBRIDGE HOPEFULS The Times (5 December 2015, not available on line but churned by the Mail) described how clever pupils in Harris Federation academies are being groomed for Oxbridge by being sent to watch plays and attend operas. A Times editorial, headed ‘Educating Rons and Ritas’, approved. It would help children whose parents hadn’t been well-educated to gain ‘cultural polish’.
But surely such activities should be part of education for all children not just brainy ones destined for Oxbridge? It’s easier, of course, for schools in cities, especially London. Theatres, concert halls and museums are easily accessible. For schools outside cities, especially those hundreds of miles away, it’s logistically more difficult. Watching a recording of a play isn’t the same as watching a live performance, but it still introduces pupils to the play. Accessing a museum on-line isn’t the same as visiting one, but it has the advantage of being able to focus on the object rather than being jostled by visitors posing for selfies. And listening to a musical recording isn’t the same as a live performance – but it’s the way most of us experience and come to love our favourite music.
In this search for polish, it’s easy to forget the reason why teachers want to introduce pupils to art, literature, drama and music. It’s primarily for enjoyment. And perhaps the enjoyment comes not from total immersion in cultural events as part of 'finishing' but by a steady drip feed from pre-school to sixth form – something that’s part of the curriculum for every school. It shouldn't be hyped as something which helps clever pupils gain an Oxbridge place – a Unique Selling Point offered by an academy chain - but as something which is life-enhancing and fun for all.