I was too busy riding my bike through piles of leaves in the woods on the glorious day that was Sunday to see the apparently relentless, self congratulatory twitter campaign run by a little school in London. Thank goodness it didn’t rain. I’m not getting into the pros and cons of this one school. But I have some questions about the impact that the overall ethos of being “strict” has on other schools. And the title, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, does not refer to this school. It refers to an accountability system which allows some people to be lauded for excluding children and others to be condemned for including them.
Any school that introduces a zero tolerance behaviour policy is creating a form of social engineering in which parents and children who will not or cannot comply will be excluded from the school. Some heads have had no qualms in using phrases such as “not our kind of family.” So these children go elsewhere. They go to schools willing to take the hit on their data. They go to schools who believe that all children deserve a chance, especially those whose parents won’t help to set the boundaries they need, or who don’t care if they’re educated or not. It galls me that schools can be deemed outstanding on the basis of results and excellent behaviour around school when they have created an uneven playing field. Or that the school down the road, opening their arms to the neglected and disaffected, are deemed to require improvement.
In recent years, the move by Ofsted to assess ‘progress over time’ has been welcomed – rightly – as an indication of a teacher’s success, but in doing so there has been an ever increasing focus on results. Progress for some children is being present; being able to converse humanely with another person; being settled but these things don’t matter. Even as we see highly unreliable data from KS2 SATs throwing into question the whole credibility of moderation; even as Ofqual release its findings that almost half of English and History students receive the wrong mark in exams (in the same year that they made remarks harder); even as we learn more about the impact of stress on the brain’s capacity to remember and learn – exacerbated for children living in poverty…I could go on…but even as all these things emerge, our accountability system holds on to the sinking hull that is our dependence on exams for measuring a school’s worth.
I sat at home weeping last night as I read messages from a headteacher who has dedicated his whole life to working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s spent years battling with parents, social services, mental health services and others to give children the care and attention they need. He’s dealt with staffing crises, hideous child protection issues, the works. And he’s now out of a job based on the judgment of a single Ofsted inspection in which the data was deemed to be poor – a judgment made in a year in which the whole SATs system was wrecked. The loss to the profession is huge. But what a way to treat a compassionate human being. Ofsted will wash its hands of this. The hiring and firing of a head is a matter for the MAT or LA they will say. They’ll wash their hands of the suicide of a young Science teacher in Manchester who couldn’t cope with the workload pressure – pressure that, as is well documented, comes from senior leaders’ desperation to please Ofsted – to get the results. Who can blame them? Poor results and they are out. Just as schools with zero tolerance policies wash their hands of the children they reject, our accountability system accepts no responsibility for lives and careers ruined by a narrow and highly unreliable set of measures. It’s truly sickening what we have become in our desperation to standardise and verify everything.
This is not the fault of a single inspector or human being. I recognise the efforts of people like Sean Harford and before him, Mike Cladingbowl to humanise the organisation and to listen. But nevertheless, this is a failure of systems designed to find simple solutions to complex problems; of the need to compete, to be seen to be tough. It demonstrates a lack of compassion, of tolerance, of being able to cope with the nuances of individual human experience. So who can blame schools for playing the game? Getting tough by selecting only those kids whose parents will ensure they wear the right uniform, pay their bills on time, do their homework, attend detentions? Who can blame them for surviving in a heartless system by putting head before heart? They’ll get results. They’ll be Outstanding. There will be knights and dames. And who will notice the dedicated ex headteacher weeping in a corner? The teacher battling to keep a child in school knowing they’ll be lucky to have a pen on the day of the exam? No-one, it seems.