Where is the Bar?

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 schools reorganisation will not be complete for some while, and there is much systemic change taking place simultaneously as well as the RSA Inquiry, plus four new free schools 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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