Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cycle of failure

Ofsted have always claimed when a school fails its inspection and is placed in special measures or closed and reopened under ‘Fresh Start’ that this shock is essential to ‘turn it around’. A bit like the argument for corporal punishment or the cat – they’ll never do it again. Then there’s the victims who claim that, ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.

There was an interesting article in the ‘Times Educational Supplement’ about Bradford Academy a school that serves two ‘economically challenged’ council estates. A brief history-

· 1963 opens as Fairfax community school
· 1992 ‘named and shamed’ in the first official league tables
· 1994 places in special measures with the threat of closure
· 1996 re-launched as Bowling community college
· 1997 out of special measures
· 2000 reopened as a Church of England school - Bradford Cathedral community college
· 2002 placed in special measures
· 2004 out of special measures
· 2007 Bradford Academy opens in September

The House of Commons Education Select Committee noted that failure could send schools into a spiral of decline. Some 43 schools judged to be in serious weakness in 2001/2 had declined further and were placed in special measures the following year. They noted that some schools were, “unable to attract high-achieving pupils or well-qualified staff, making improvement more difficult.” Of those schools placed in special measures between 1995 and 1997, 40% subsequently closed. Research undertaken by Ruth Lupton for the London School of Economics showed that 90% of schools that failed inspections were in poor areas.

In Martin Johnson’s book ‘Failing City, Failing School’ (1999) he cites the example of Battersea Technology College which was closed and re-opened twice during the 1990s. In 1999 Hatcham Wood in Lewisham was closed and reopened under Fresh Start as Telegraph Hill, after just three terms it failed an inspection and was closed. In 2000 four ‘super-heads’ at Fresh Start schools resigned in one week. Fresh Start had been based on ‘Reconstitution’ in San Francisco – close the school and reopen with new staff. Same solution, same problems – massive staff turnover, problems in recruiting experienced staff, test scores didn’t improve, there was pupil indiscipline and the consequences of being branded as a ‘failure’ in public.

Secondary schools in many cities are very selective with faith schools winnowing out the most able children, Canon Slade Church of England School in Bolton is the most glaring example. In 2005 it admitted 268 children from 87 different primary schools, the eight primary schools within easy travelling distance sent just 39 children. Canon Slade is almost completely white in an area with a large black and Asian population. Only 6% of its children were SEN against a Bolton average of 27%. Parents at the nearest primary school admitted that they didn’t even bother to apply, “It’s not for the likes of us.”

Those areas that retain grammar schools have seven out of the 10 worst performing schools on a new index - which records GCSE maths and English passes. Less than 10 per cent of their pupils achieved five top-grade A*-C passes including maths and English. The figures are all the more stark when set against the fact that only 15 councils in England still have fully selective education systems. The authorities with the largest number of schools in the bottom 100 in the country are Kent and Lincolnshire - both of which have a fully selective education system. Kent and the Medway Towns - which were part of the Kent authority until the 1990s - have 10 schools in the worst 100.

Of course the argument was always advance that ‘bright working class children’ could make it to grammar schools. 14% of children in secondary schools claim Free School Meals, the percentage in the 160 remaining grammar schools is just 2%.

Was there ever a ‘Golden Age’ where schools in poor areas weren’t beaten around the head? In the 1970s the comprehensive schools didn’t tell children from the age of 11 that they were failures. In some LEAs schools received ongoing and continuous support, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate visited schools regularly and not just for punitive inspection raids.

Ofsted inspections are a blunt club that in many cases don’t assist schools to improve but merely precipitate closure or a cycle of failure. One school was in special measures for ten years. There must be a better way…

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