Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bradford schools - how many children will we let down before we get it right?

So someone shares this article on Twitter. It's a story about an 'A' Level student who didn't quite get the grades to go to her chosen university. First reaction is sad for her but tough - there are thousands of students who've got tantalisingly close to meeting a challenging offer. There are other opportunities, other options, life goes on.

But the story's not really about the girl who didn't get her offer, the story's about the school:

Getting into Durham University is never going to be easy. But it’s near impossible when the school you go to has been placed on special measures by OFSTED three times since you started.

Failing OFSTED obviously shows the school is shit, but it also leads to another flaw that you’ll find in every school like the one Megan and I went to: The pass rate is way more important to the school than how well the students actually do.

Megan would never have even received an offer from Durham had she listened to her Head of Sixth Form, who told her that A-levels would be too difficult, and advised her to take BTECs instead. BTECs can be sneakily added into the overall A-level results of the school, making it look better than it actually is. BTECs avoid any risk because, realistically, who fails them?

These state school teachers are lying to intelligent students, stunting what they can achieve, all for the sake of league tables. It’s hard to know whether to blame them, or the government and regulators who incentivize that kind of behaviour.

And one other thing. The school is in Bradford and, as you know, I'm a councillor there.

I've a feeling that Megan will be fine. She'll get to a good university doing a subject she enjoys. She'll do well and get into a good career. But there are a load of other young people at that school who we're not talking about. These are the ones who left at sixteen with nothing. The ones who might have got an 'A' Level or two. The ones talked out of even applying for university. The ones who'll just be statistics on Bradford's skills gap, unemployment and crime levels.

The school in question is in 'special measures' and is in the process of transferring to an academy chain. Let's hope - once all the arguing over contracts is done - that this means the school, once one of Bradford's better schools, can start delivering the education that children going there deserve.

For Bradford as a whole, it's just another reminder that improving Bradford's education is like a depressing game of whack-a-mole - every time we get a failing or struggling school turned round, another one rears its head elsewhere. The City's education system lacks the capacity to respond - this isn't about the capability of the education staff, the best head teachers and the most effective governors but simply the realisation that we haven't enough of them.

I've argued - indeed the Conservative Group has put forward motions on the subject - that we need to start sharing capacity with neighbouring authorities, to begin to create a sort of 'Yorkshire Challenge' akin to the successful 'London Challenge'. This is rejected for what seems at times to be 'not invented here syndrome' plus ideological resistance to the central government agenda of academies, free schools and a tighter curriculum.

But in the end this isn't about ideology but rather about the very practical task of getting all schools to work like the best schools. We can see what works - ethos, leadership, good planning, high expectations - but too often allow matters like who owns a building or employs the staff to get in the way of running a good school. These days, us councillors have precious little to do with schools - we don't set the budgets, we don't determine what's taught and we don't inspect. Ofsted wants still more powers - our role in school improvement and chunks of child protection work - and the gradual procession to academies seems inevitable.

Rather than moan about the injustice of all this, we should see it as a liberation, as the opportunity to start saying things about schools, teaching, funding and the role of Ofsted that need to be said. To point at failing schools and say "you're failing", to act as an advocate for parents and pupils let down by bad schools and to challenge the use of poverty and social conditions as an excuse for failure.

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