When I did O level maths, I learned that average represented a middle point in a set of figures. Whether something was very good, good, poor or very poor would depend on its score relative to the average.
In 2015 the average percentage of pupils in state schools reaching the GCSE benchmark across all local authorities (LAs) was 57.1%. Judged against this 57.1% average, GCSE performance in individual LAs could be deemed very strong, strong and so on. LAs whose score is around the average are performing at the same level as most other LAs.
So far, so simple.
But now it appears average is ‘not strong’. That’s the verdict of Bradley Simmons, newly-appointed Ofsted regional director for the South East. Simmons has sent a letter to Reading expressing ‘concern’ about GCSE results in the area. The average percentage reaching the benchmark in Reading was 57.5% - slightly above the national average. But this apparently is ‘not strong’.
If this score is ‘not strong’ then all LAs floating around the average can expect similar letters of concern. Logically such letters should only need to be sent to LAs whose results are below average.
That said, results for pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in Reading are poor. Simmons says their percentage performance fell from 30.7% in 2014 to 23.8% in 2015.
But Reading is a small LA – only eight state secondary schools* had results in 2015. Two of these are selective and had so few FSM pupils they were excluded from statistics. Poor performance in just one school out of six can reduce the average.
Chief HMI Sir Michael Wilshaw said recently results alone would not decide whether a school becomes an academy. The same logic should be applied to LAs – results alone shouldn’t determine whether an LA gets a letter of concern. Eight of Reading’s secondary schools* have been inspected: three are Outstanding, two are Good, one Requires Improvement and two are Inadequate. But because Reading is such a small LA, any change in Ofsted judgement has a disproportionate effect on the percentage which are Good or better.
Simmons acknowledges Reading’s primary schools have improved since October 2014 when six primary schools were in ‘a category of concern’. There is now only one. However, he thinks the problem has shifted to secondary schools.
A Department for Education press release quoted Simmons:
‘I am concerned about overall GCSE results in the borough…Local authorities have a responsibility to champion their most vulnerable pupils. That is why I am calling on Reading Borough Council to explain what they are doing to address this serious situation.’
But, as noted above, 'overall GCSE results' in Reading were slightly above the national average in 2015. Reading’s difficulties centre on the performance of disadvantaged pupils.
The press release strikes a tougher approach than Simmons’ letter. The DfE appears to put all the responsibility on Reading to resolve the situation. It likes to pose a ‘get tough’ approach. But Simmons’ letter recognises responsibility to drive improvement does not lie solely with LAs as more schools become academies. He hopes Reading will act as a ‘champion’ for pupils. But LAs are handicapped in their ability to act as advocates – their powers of intervention are few. In a heavily academized system, LAs are impotent.
*Two free schools which opened in September 2015 have not yet been inspected.