Monday, June 23, 2008

So what exactly constitutes failure, then?

Note: edited today 24 June 2008.

I have long been of the view that an assessment that passes everyone is less of an assessment and more of an attendance register. If you have to have an assessment, then it has to be possible for people to fail. Or don't bother. Don't waste their time and your resources.

Recently, we were greeted with the news that the Prime Minister has issued an ultimatum to the 1-in-5 bottom schools in the country: buck up or close down. These schools have been identified as falling short of the government targets that at least 30% of the pupils should achieve "five good GCSEs" which means that they should achieve a C grade or better in at least five subjects.

There is a third option. These schools may be converted into Labour's new pet project: academies. There are mixed feelings on the subject of academies and I am not really qualified to enter into the argument on one side or the other.

According to news reports, Gordon Brown stated very strongly that there was to be no tolerance of failure.

What was a little surprising was the news, a few days later, that many of the schools tarred with this 'failure' brush had received excellent Ofsted reports following their last inspection. In the light of the deprivation and circumstances of many of the children at these schools, the value that the schools added was judged to be outstanding at best and satisfactory at worst.

So how do you assess whether a school is failing or not? Is it an absolute? Schools which do not produce pupils of whom at least 30% achieve five good GCSEs are unsuccessful. Or is it relative? Schools which do not add x value to their pupils are seen to be failing.

Under the 'absolute' approach, many schools don't stand a chance. Think about areas where:

  • parents have not completed high school education themselves
  • education is not high on the list of priorities due to other deprivation
  • English is not the first language of a large percentage of the population
  • crime levels are high or where gang culture applies more pressure than the 'system'
Under the 'relative' approach, other schools are on the back foot. Think of schools where:
  • the intake is already achieving high levels coming in to the school
  • discipline is not a problem
I'm not sure that a one-size fits all approach is ever going to be able to identify the failing schools with any consistency.

I don't pretend to have the answers on this one, but I think it must be enormously frustrating for the heads of the schools facing the chop when they have been given sterling inspection reports, only to have the same government refer to them as failing and threaten to close them down.


Harold Jarche said...

I read your post just after reading Michele Martin's post on the value of mistakes as professional development. Seems like a problem of perspective.

Anonymous said...

@harold Thanks for the link to Michelle's post. Don't know how I missed that one. I would agree with you, except to say that part of the problem is the perceived need for a single perspective.

Surely helping a dyslexic kid learn to read well enough to be able to function in mainstream society is a greater achievement that seeing an already high-performing kid land a clutch of Bs?

Let's compare my son to a fictitious child of non-English speaking parents in inner London.

My son was originally predicted to achieve only one B (for music). All his other subjects were apparently just As waiting to happen. Ha! More recent predictions indicate that we'll be lucky to see him get the grades needed to secure his provisional place in 6th form!

Now take this fictitious kid whose parents don't speak terribly good English. They live in an area where knife crime is rife. He has to battle the prejudice against "these people who come in here and take our jobs". His parents rely on him to act as interpreter because their English is poor. They promised to learn quickly, but real life got in the way. They work long hours in menial jobs. He works, too, simply because he's more employable than his parents, and the bills have to be paid. When this kid brings home a fistful of Cs, I would consider that an achievement.

When mine does, I would call it failure.

It's all relative.