Annual August Anxiety

The great Terry Pratchett is attributed with observing that

“the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading.  People like a show.”

Perhaps this is why the month of August is a time of worry and fear as headteachers everywhere await their school students’ fate and possible new, enforced careers.  The A-level and GCSE results over analysis and subsequent tedious, inaccurate media comparison and inevitable annual conclusions that are drawn from these results are unhelpful and emotive.  We downplay success in an understated ‘British’ manner.  Good results are too quickly minimised with ‘they were a good year group’ or ‘we got lucky’, as intervention lists are planned and worry turns to the new years 11 and 13.  Poor or unexpected results, even in one subject such as in the English marking grade boundary fiasco of 2012/13, can lead to a year of uncertainty and paralysis of decision making as daily action plans look at what we could do, should have done.  Good results are crucial.  They positively affect the number of student applications and thereby essential finance, staff morale and student confidence.

Good results sway the next Ofsted judgement, which will lead to further upward or downward spiral.  This is based on ‘glib’ judgements from a two day, fly through inspection that barely scratches the surface of a school, its ethos, its leadership.

Is it not time to have a better system than this annual pot noodle quick snap judgement of schools?  Analysis of results has to occur but not the stereotype of success or failure.  Failure or when things have not gone well has been when I have been most proud of my staff.  The English department have moved from a restrictive period of underperformance to the happier climate of exam success.  This has seen awesome results this year of 93% A*- C.  The same staff, and I would argue similar approach, now have the freedom to innovate and challenge with confidence.  Good results allow you to develop your practice and have the confidence to do so.  The key to this turnaround has been superb support from governors, which is very different from passive, unchallenging support.  Their belief in the staff, the staff review system and the action plan helped, as did the lack of Ofsted.  Ofsted during this period would have put us in a limiting category, now we’d be pushing ‘outstanding’.  Neither judgement would have been correct.  We correctly made the judgement that our KS4 curriculum and teaching was good but our gentle, nurturing approach to year 7/8 was not having the desired effect.  KS3 is the key drive of a school and I would suggest should be the focus of Ofsted for the next five years.  This would stop the quick fix, simplistic emergency cramming of year 11 that occurs.  Get it right in years 7, 8 and 9 and obviously the foundations for success are formed.  My quick fix to the reduction of the annual August stress of results would be:

  • Not to publish results – public comparisons do not help local collaboration but can create understandable but silly GCSE/A-level envy.
  • Ofsted to judge schools on an average from the previous inspection, hopefully every three years. This would eradicate the paralysis dips in performance can cause and would allow schools time to remedy concerns, plan properly and not work on a year by year basis.
  • Ofsted to place far greater emphasis on KS3 than currently occurs, with particular reflection on the level of challenge and the curriculum.
  • Measure schools on all GCSE subjects. RE should be part of the Ebacc measure.  Art, music and sport are essential subjects/qualifications for some, not the marginalised measure they have become.
  • Optimistically, I would readdress the need to be judged by exams and reintroduce coursework assessment but that’s for another blog.

For the record, we did ‘okay’, ‘they were a good year group’ but I am worried about grades 1-9 and our new year 11!

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