Raising the bar? Time to reconsider what we are measuring

Emma Bishton's picture
Suffolk County Council, with the RSA, have launched an inquiry into education and learning in Suffolk – “Raising the Bar”, amidst concerns that attainment is not as it high as it should be. They are right to be concerned; Suffolk is a relatively affluent county (though affluence at county level masks areas of significant deprivation) and results are therefore not as high as might be expected. For some years, SCC have blamed lower attainment on the three-tier system, hence the closure of middle schools which is now underway. Others might (in my view reasonably) attribute some of the effect to relatively low funding in our Suffolk schools, but that is presumably beyond discussion at this point.

The closure of middle schools (and consequent expansion of primary and upper schools) will not be complete for some while, and there is of course much systemic change taking place simultaneously, as well as the RSA Inquiry, plus four new 11-16 Free schools in Suffolk which we are told will raise standards, so it is unclear what results will be attributed to which intervention over what time-frame. Leaving that aside, ‘Raising the Bar’ is laudable in its own right. My problem with Raising the Bar is not its purpose, not its aims, nor the call for ideas, and especially not the desire to bring parents and teachers into the debate. My problem is working out where ‘the bar’ is. To be fair, this is not just a problem in Suffolk, it is a problem across the English system.

Our primary schools are generally well-received. Our secondary schools, on the other hand, mostly get a bashing. (And this was the case before Michaels Gove and Wilshaw started adding to the diatribe). According to the politicians and much of the media, our schools and teachers fail our children: they don’t get enough qualifications, those qualifications aren’t hard enough to achieve or don’t equip them for work (and as of this year, the grading of these qualifications appears rather arbitrary anyway).

As a parent, of course I want my children to get a good range of qualifications which will equip them for whatever the next stage of their life is. But that isn’t all I want from their education: I want them to have opportunities for creativity and physical activity, and I want the school to help them to be emotionally and physically fit and healthy, able to make effective and morally-sound judgements, and to demonstrate the kinds of social skills which are useful for life, never mind the workplace. An English Baccalaureate doesn’t show me any of those things. Yes, I know, a lot of that is also my job as a parent. But not exclusively – school shows them that the views of parents aren’t arbitrary but exist within a system, and helps them get the hang of how to operate in that system. There are quite a lot of schools that do all this, and more, already. But they don’t get recognised for it unless the school also gets above a magic percentage of A*-C at GCSE and an Outstanding Ofsted. And continues to do so. (We are stuck in a peculiar dilemma – if students’ results improve the exams must be easier, but if schools’ results (from these same students) don’t improve, the schools are failing in their task.)

Statistically (and despite the protestations of many free school proposers) schools can’t all get better results than each other, nor can they all be in the top 10%. A bit of reality would be helpful here – literally raising the bar is what will help more pupils than raising the attainment of a few, and anything which helps achieve this from this review will be worth pursuing. But I digress – what I really hope will come out of this review is some way of understanding when our schools are performing well in more ways than simply counting GCSEs or EBacs. And of celebrating that, rather than being drawn in to the constant disparagement of our schools.

Here’s hoping the Suffolk review really does lead to some thinking across the county about what our schools are for. Then we might be able to work out how to assess their achievement in more meaningful ways. Improvement will follow once we are sure what we are measuring and why.
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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 03/10/2012 - 11:08

I wish Suffolk well in its review.

Unfortunately, such exercises tend to attract all kinds of snake-oil sellers.

Last night I had a drink with a friend who teaches in London secondary. At the beginning of term there were a couple of INSET that sent my friend into a deep depression.

The first morning was taken up by an LA SIP together with an external education consultant giving a presentation to the effect that not only was Michael Gove's EBacc academic curriculum outdated, but all the school's vocational training too.

Apparently, the consultant's argument was (and I'm assured this is verbatim) "most of the jobs the kids will be applying for haven't been invented yet."

It seems the educational establishment now believes that we will have no need of nurses, radiographers, engineers, computer coders, electricians and so on in the years to come. Presumably, everyone will be training as lightsabre fighters or flying-saucer drivers.

Constructed upon this flimsy absurdity was an argument in favour of de-emphasising subjects/disciplines and all their content and concentrating on developing social skills, cognitive skills and self-directed learning...... 21st century skills.....blah blah...

Michael Gove's phrase about the 'enemies of promise' was spot on.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 03/10/2012 - 12:19

"Unfortunately, such exercises tend to attract all kinds of snake-oil sellers."

S'okay Ricky. I think they're all busy in London. They tend to hang out where there are profoundly ignorant and inexperienced people with huge amounts of power. The pickings are rich. I suppose you'll assume I'm talking about the headteachers.

Mariuspodolski's picture
Wed, 03/10/2012 - 11:58

You may be reassured but how can anyone here be reassured by what you say when you hide behind a facade in order to attack, demean and misrepresent on behalf of the government. You protect your identity at the same time as pouring scorn on those who criticise government policy and hope for a more equal society. Your cowardice is shameful

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 03/10/2012 - 13:17

O stop it Allan. You are no more the great theatre director Marius Podolski than I am.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 05/10/2012 - 14:21

Emma is correct in wondering what is meant by the "bar" - what does it cover and how is this to be measured accurately? The argument is not content v skills - both are needed.


It's easy to mock terms such as "21st century learning" - the phrase leans towards jargon especially when used lazily. However, when commentators explain what they mean such as "ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making...ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools", then it deserves a more thoughtful response than the dismissive, lazy reaction of the "blah-blah" type.


Barry Spivack's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 11:32

Education is more than just good GCSE results. It is about preparing children for adult life both at work and in general. To accomplish this children have to grow to be able to cope with what life throws at them. Developing their self-esteem, confidence, energy, creativity and intelligence provides a solid foundation for future life. At the Maharishi Free School in Lancashire this is accomplished by regular practice of Transcendental Meditation which creates neuro physiological balance. In addition the children obtain excellent GCSE results and Ofsted recently rated it as outstanding in 11 areas and outstanding overall.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 17:16

"Ofsted recently rated it as outstanding in 11 areas and outstanding overall."
Please can you give us the web link for the report Barry? I can't find it.

Barry Spivack's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:26

Rebecca - I went to Ofsted and this is the page with two reports on the Maharishi School before it became a free school. It is due for another report in 2013. Let me know if you want any more information.


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:48

So there is no report on the Maharishi Free School. There's only a report of a private school. How long has it actually been open Barry?

Barry Spivack's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:00

The Maharishi School was an academically non-selective independent school for 25 years. In September 2011 it was one of the first 24 free schools to open its doors. It is an all through school 4-16. In Suffolk we are applying to the DfE to start a Maharishi Free School for pupils aged 11-16 in Rendlesham in September 2014. We need parents with pupils currently in Y4 & 5 to indicate that this school would be their first choice when they select a secondary school for their child.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:05

How many of the students who were attending the school in September 2011 had previously been at the private school. How many had not and of those who had not how many had not siblings at the school?

Barry Spivack's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:10

I am not sure of the exact figures but I think there were about 70 and I think it is now at 135 and going up to 180. Even when it was private about 20-30% of the pupils were on bursaries. I can't answer the siblings question but I suspect not many. There may have been some young ones who had an elder sibling at the school. I don't have access to those figures. I get the impression these questions are leading somewhere. What is it you wish to establish. It was a very atypical private school.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:22

I've worked in comps in tough areas Barry. The correlation between inspection results and the cohort is extremely high.

But in general I'm just curious rather than trying to make a particular point. When you say it was an atypical private school can I ask what you mean by that?

Barry Spivack's picture
Fri, 09/11/2012 - 12:40

What you say about the Ofsted reports is true. The school in Skelmersdale was set up by parents who practised Transcendental Meditation. They were modelling the school on a similar one in Fairfield Iowa.Then what happened as those children grew up was that parents who did not practise Transcendental Meditation heard about the excellent academic and pastoral outcomes of the school and the parents would learn TM just so their kids could go to the school. When it was a private school the parents had to learn to meditate but now it is a free school that is up to the parents although so far most of the new parents have done so. If you go to www.davidlynchfoundation.org website you will see video clips of examples of extremely tough schools in the US that have introduced TM with great success. By tough we are talking guns, knives and metal detectors. At the school in Lancs as part of the growing process there were 3 new places for this Septembers Y7 and 60 families put applied - one had a statement and the other two places were decided by lottery.

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