St Olave’s is not alone. Schools with dodgy practices are everywhere
Isuppose we should feel outraged at the damning report into shameful practices at St Olave’s super-selective grammar school, where high-flying pupils, who couldn’t quite fly high enough, were systematically forced out the door halfway through their A-levels. An independent inquiry has now accused the school of treating its students as “collateral damage”, preferring to focus on its institutional reputation rather than the wellbeing of its young people, some of whom were reported to be suicidal at the prospect of rejection and public humiliation.
However, my overwhelming response was one of dull resignation. Here we go again: yet another example of how the market approach to schooling has spiralled out of control, exposing the dark side of high-stakes competition within which all schools must jostle for position. It isn’t just the “top end” of the schools market in which pupils are “collateral damage”, though harnessing the outrage of the most powerfully motivated parents in a school like St Olave’s certainly helps to guarantee headlines.
Having spent the last year researching a new book – The Best for My Child. Did the schools market deliver? – and looking at the 30 years of education policy since the 1988 Education Act introduced the idea of parent choice and competition, it is clear there are dodgy practices everywhere. Covert selection – schools finding increasingly ingenious ways of keeping out the pupils least likely to succeed – is rife. In the pre-Michael Gove years some pupils were disadvantaged by widespread gaming of the curriculum – the liberal use of qualifications that counted in the performance measure but were less rigorous than GCSEs and limited future opportunities for pupils.
And now we have the phenomenon of “off-rolling”, which was first uncovered by the education analytics organisation Education Datalab last year in the course of an investigation, Who’s Left. This looked at the number of pupils disappearing from the rolls of more inclusive schools than St Olave’s in the run-up to GCSE examinations. In some schools the number of pupils leaving between Year 7 and Year 11 was more than 50% of the number of pupils who complete their secondary education at the school. It would appear that thousands of young people every year are being pushed out into unsatisfactory alternative education, or no education at all, and the problem is worse in some academy chains, pointing to another problem with the market approach.
The rapid increase in diversity, with thousands of independent state schools contracted to central government rather than operating under the auspices of the local authority, has led to fragmented, weak systems of local oversight making it easier for some schools to cheat.
There is no doubt that public accountability in terms of performance tables and Ofsted, introduced after the 1988 act, helped schools get better. Most are now solidly good, safe, well-functioning environments though changes to exams and performance metrics make it hard to carry out accurate like-for-like comparisons in standards. Many more young people are staying on in education and training than was the case 30 years ago, and gaps in attainment are starting to narrow, though some estimates suggest it would take another half century before the poorest children catch up with the better off.
Nevertheless, market pressure has encouraged unethical behaviour with headteachers repeatedly obliged to choose between doing what is best for their schools, and what is best for their pupils. Some, like the former head at St Olave’s, come down on the side of the school rather than the pupil. Others may take a hit in their results for “doing the right thing” and the time has come to confront the market failure and consider a new approach.
It is unlikely that parent choice and public accountability of school performance are going anywhere soon. We live in an unashamedly consumer society which has reached its tentacles firmly into the public realm. But the market could be tamed by introducing more rigorous local oversight of school admissions and exclusions than we have at present. Prof Becky Allen, who led the research into off-rolling, told me: “Human relationships and a strong regulatory middle tier work together to promote ethnical leadership.”
More imaginative ways of holding schools to account need to be developed; either by counting the results of the pupils who have left in the performance measures, or introducing area-wide accountability, in which the responsibility for every child in an area becomes the responsibility of all schools in that community. Finally, at a time when employers bemoan the lack of hard and soft skills in young employees, why do we rely so heavily on academic exam results to judge success? What about broader measures of achievement – maybe a real baccalaureate-style qualification – to include personal attributes, technical and vocational qualifications.
The best for my child/best for my school approach has run its course. We know now there is “collateral damage” everywhere. Let’s hope the next 30 years can be different.
• Fiona Millar is a writer and journalist specialising in education and parenting issues. Her book, The Best for My Child. Did the schools market deliver? (John Catt Educational Ltd) is out now