Failsafe futures, by Conor Ryan

17 Apr 08
Poorly performing schools are being targeted by both the government and Opposition and failure is not an option. Conor Ryan examines the various solutions on offer

18 April 2008

Poorly performing schools are being targeted by both the government and Opposition – and failure is not an option. Conor Ryan examines the various solutions on offer

A decade ago, two secondary schools symbolised failures in state education. The Ridings in Halifax, Yorkshire, and Hackney Downs in east London were at the centre of media storms in the run-up to the 1997 election. Both had received appalling Ofsted reports and been dubbed 'the worst school in Britain'. At The Ridings, images of out-of-control teenagers led the television news bulletins.

The differing fortunes of the two illustrate the challenges in turning around failing schools – and how some can succeed. The Ridings initially started to recover under new management, though with the same pupils and under local authority control. But in the past two years, it has suffered from a poor Ofsted report, parental dissatisfaction – the school is only half full – and poor GCSE results. Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council finally gave up and last October announced that the school would be closed by the summer of 2009. It is likely to be replaced by an academy.

By contrast, Hackney Downs was closed down in late 1995 on the recommendation of a government hit squad. In 2004, it was replaced by Mossbourne Academy, which is now rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted. Mossbourne has already achieved some of the country's best test results at age 14 on a 'contextualised value-added' basis (which takes the backgrounds and needs of the pupil intake into account). Some 37% of students receive free school meals, more than twice the national average, but it is hugely oversubscribed.

When these two schools were making headlines, Labour and the Conservatives were arguing over which party could best tackle failing schools. That war has now resumed.

'We have put in place now a systematic plan of ever tougher measures to eradicate failure,' Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared last October. He announced a new target. By 2012, the number of schools with fewer than 30% of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, should be cut from 638 to zero.

Not to be outdone, the Conservatives have also made tackling failure the centrepiece of their schools policy, hoping voters will believe that there has been little progress under Labour. 'When we judge our performance against the reality of what other nations are achieving, we're falling behind,' shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said in a speech last month.

Gove says more than 350,000 young people every year still fail to get five good GCSEs, including maths and English. And he notes that only 29% of pupils reach this standard in the most deprived areas in the country. But Schools Secretary Ed Balls counters that the number of schools below the government's 30% threshold fell from 1,610 (out of around 3,200 secondary schools) in 1997 to 638 in 2007.

In reality, there are fewer failing schools today: Ofsted records a halving of schools in special measures since 1998. Nor are the schools static; most recover or close within two years. And, overall, the proportion gaining five good GCSEs has risen from 45% to 62% since 1997, or from 35% to 47% including English and maths.

In the same period, the gap between poorer and better-off pupils has narrowed – but is still significant. Both parties also recognise that too many schools still achieve poor results. This is why the government is raising the bar on what constitutes failure: after all, half of all state schools would have missed the latest target ten years ago.

But school leaders are sceptical. 'There are not 638 failing schools,' says John Dunford, the leader of the Association of School and College Leaders. 'There are 638 schools below the government's ever-increasing floor target.'

Dunford points out that when the government's contextualised value-added measure is used, 250 of the 638 schools are performing above average. 'The pupils in those schools are already doing better than expected, given their specific needs and backgrounds,' he says.

Moreover, many targeted schools are not defined as failing by Ofsted. Only 49 secondaries are in special measures and a further 98 have a 'notice to improve'. Most of the 638 are 'satisfactory', and some have even had 'good' reports.

However, several changes to schools' accountability are likely, which could lead to the downgrading of some with good value-added scores. The CVA measure currently gives no extra credit for good English and maths results despite their being the government's preferred measure of success; this artificially boosts the performance of schools reliant on vocational qualifications, which are worth four GCSEs.

Since CVA plays a big role in Ofsted inspectors' rankings, such change would make it less likely that Ofsted would rate as 'good' a school below the government's threshold.

But Brown's focus on a 'floor target' reflects earlier successes. When David Blunkett was education secretary in 2000, he set the challenge of ensuring that no secondary school had fewer than 25% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs (including vocational equivalents) by 2006. At the time, there were 530 such schools. By 2007, there were just 26 (even The Ridings had just reached 25% on this measure by last year, though this dropped to 13% when English and maths were included).

Yet the new target is much more challenging, and some government insiders fear that as many as 200 secondaries will not meet it by 2011. After all, the Blunkett target had six years; the government has now given itself just three. Brown's 2012 date was brought forward by a year in the Budget and given a £200m fund for a 'National Challenge' programme to empower good head teachers to help turn around schools that are 'stuck' in patterns of low attainment.

More importantly, the revised target includes English and maths, a tougher GCSE measure. Pupils who do well in English don't always do well in maths. The change also means that vocational qualifications, worth four GCSEs, are less valuable.

Yet, the government is confident of early progress. In January, schools minister Jim Knight said 170 schools were close to the 30% goal; many might succeed this year. The other 468, including 161 with fewer than 20% meeting the GCSE target, will have annual improvement targets, with good teachers sent to the toughest schools and one-to-one tuition in the basics.

There will also be more federations and trusts linking good and weak schools. On April 9, schools minister Lord Adonis announced 115 more trust schools, bringing the total to 390 – with high-performing specialist schools turning around low performers.

The government-funded Building Schools for the Future programme is also being revamped. The plan to rebuild or renew every secondary school will now be put off until after 2020 and the focus changed to rebuilding the most needy and lowest attaining schools in every local authority, often as academies.

And the government's biggest lever is the academies programme. These independent non-selective, non-fee-paying schools are funded by Whitehall, and sponsored by philanthropists, educational charities and universities. There are already 83, largely in deprived inner-city areas, with 55 a year due to open until 2011. A total of 243 academies should be open or in the pipeline by 2010. These are being tied into the National Challenge, and are expected to reduce setup costs.

Since Balls became schools secretary, the academies have been tied more closely to local authority development plans, while retaining independent governance and direct Whitehall funding. Universities and colleges don't have to stump up the £2m sponsorship required from private sponsors.

And academies are now expected to follow the national curriculum in core subjects such as English and maths. The Conservatives argue that this will erode the academies' independence. However, ministers see it as vital to reduce local opposition and so expand the programme more quickly. And they are keen to do this because academies are improving significantly faster than other schools and are very popular with parents.

Adonis attributes this success to the schools' strong leadership, ethos and values, quality of teaching and the way they nurture talent. He believes that this combination is bolstered by the independence of academies, which he sees as 'engines of social mobility and meritocracy'. Chains of academies, with a similar approach to the curriculum or teaching, are developing as the programme expands. So too are schools that take pupils right through from three to 18.

Critics argue that academies take fewer poorer pupils than their predecessors and exclude too many poorly behaved youngsters. While the proportion of academy pupils on free school meals is more than twice the national average, it might be lower than a predecessor school because the school attracts a broader social mix, something most heads believe is vital in raising a school's aspirations. Academy principals argue that being very tough on poor discipline early reduces later exclusions and leads to a better learning environment for all.

The Conservatives also embrace academies but promise more freedoms. They cite the Swedish model, where parents, community and faith groups can set up schools freely, with minimum rules, and receive the same revenue per pupil as state schools. The Tories promise at least 220,000 extra school places (at a time when secondary rolls are starting to fall). They would also weight pupil funding so that schools received extra cash for each disadvantaged pupil rather than through the more complex local authority formulas that provide similar funding at present.

They would also force local authorities to give up any role in low-attaining schools, and are critical of how some authorities, including Tory-led Birmingham and Labour-led Manchester, have become co-sponsors of academies. They would also divert more than £4bn from BSF to provide capital for their new parent and community schools (something Labour is likely to make great play with at the next election).

Yet, despite the rhetoric, both parties are heading in broadly the same direction. Both would ban new selective or profit-making schools. Both would force local authorities to cede control of low-attaining schools that become academies. And both recognise the value of new providers and parent-run schools. Local authorities are legally obliged to help parents who want to run their own schools, and to hold a competition for any new schools. If a council puts forward its own plans, the schools adjudicator decides.

The main difference between the parties is between a managed and laissez-faire approach to diversity; but the impact of the rival proposals might not be so different once the details are worked through.

Such consensus doesn't impress the teaching unions, who are alarmed that more traditional approaches to school reform, such as reducing class sizes, are no longer flavour of the month. Knight was booed by some delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference when he pointed out that some schools already have classes as large as 70, supported by teaching assistants, for some lectures and lessons. A few days later, the National Union of Teachers declared itself for maximum class sizes of 20 and threatened strikes to get there.

The main unions also remain opposed to academies, with the second largest, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, attacking the 'juggernaut' of academies at its annual conference and pledging to campaign against them. The NUT already leads many local campaigns against academies.

But with both parties determined to outdo each other in tackling low-attaining and failing schools – and both committed to academies and other non-traditional means of addressing failure – such campaigners are finding themselves increasingly politically isolated, not least as local councils embrace academies. Time will tell whether the growing consensus on how to address underperformance sees many more children getting a better education. Just don't expect any agreement on how that success – or otherwise – is measured.

Conor Ryan was senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He has edited a book on 14–19 education, Staying the course, published last month by the Social Market Foundation

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