By Winnie.Agbonlahor

06 Jun 2014

This head teacher has pulled their school up from the bottom, but argues that education policy is now pushing it back down

“I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, and a head teacher for almost nine. I work at a secondary city school in one of the UK’s most deprived areas, serving predominantly white, working class families – many of whom don’t value education. Our school has had a bad reputation for 15 years. 

Nine years ago, the local authority decided to take action. The school was in special measures, so a turn-around team of education professionals was brought in – including myself. We worked hard, and within three months the school rose from special measures to a ‘Notice to improve’ status. A year later the school was deemed ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted; and another couple of years after that, it was rated ‘good’.

Nonetheless, the more able students still go to other schools, meaning our intake is continuously concentrated around the bottom end – academically speaking – of students. We’re moving in the right direction, but our historic reputation still holds us back. Parents see our GCSE performance data, and make a judgement solely based on that. It’s unfair for a school like ours to be competing on the same criteria as other schools in more affluent areas, with more academically-driven parents. It would make a lot more sense if all schools were measured purely by the amount of progress achieved by students.

Moreover, government has set a target that the proportion of pupils achieving five A-Cs (including English and Maths) in their GCSEs has to be at least 40%, compared to 20% some years ago. But sometimes you don’t have the right kids to reach 40% without extreme intervention. We do everything under the sun to improve performance – extra tuition, summer courses, Saturday sessions – but we still didn’t hit the 40% benchmark last year, so this year is absolutely crucial.

If a school doesn’t reach the 40% bench mark two years in a row, it runs the danger of being taken over by an academy chain through direct intervention by the Department for Education (DfE). I’ve not heard of a case of direct intervention yet, but if it were to occur it could do a lot of damage to our school’s already fragile reputation.

These targets are like a constant Sword of Damocles hanging over us, and put a lot of pressure on the school. What makes it worse is the uncertainty brought about by exam boards changing their boundaries, meaning the points required to attain a certain mark. Our exam board shifted the boundaries last year without giving us any prior warning, so a significant proportion of students achieved a lower grade than they ordinarily would have.

Exam boards are doing this to show they are tough on standards. And this, in my view, is due to government plans to have one exam board rather than the current four. Every board is vying for that position, which means teachers here are very nervous about predicting results.

Another change under this government has been a shift of responsibilities from local authorities to individual schools when it comes to providing for special educational needs (SEN). Councils have historically had special needs support services – a team of educational professionals who assist if a child has particular SEN requirements. The team’s support could come in the shape of a professional conducting individual mentoring sessions, or holding small study groups. However, now this resource has been depleted and the onus is more on the school to intervene – without extra resources, of course.

Under Labour there were some helpful national initiatives, which provided a wealth of resources aimed at raising students’ performance. They included teaching and training materials, best practice guides, and networks for specialist delivery. This government got rid of many useful programmes for transmitting or spreading best practice – so now, if I’m looking for advice or guidance, I contact a school I’ve heard about, or just Google it. This means that we’re constantly reinventing the wheel, which is unhelpful.

There have been more significant changes to education policy under this government than previous ones. Education is being used as a political football, but politicians seem to lose sight of the kids. All the pressure brought about by targets of set measurements drove me to the point where I wanted to resign. But every now and again, a pupil will stop me and say: ‘Thanks for that Miss, that was great.’ And when a student appreciates your work, it makes you realise why you’re in this game: for the kids. That’s why I haven’t resigned. 

I just wish that ministers would focus more on the kids too. The impact that constant change in education policy has on young people’s lives should be seriously considered by ministers, with a particular focus on deprived communities, before they announce any more knee-jerk policies. Working together, we could achieve so much.”

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