Top of what, exactly?

In the space of a week, the Guardian has done more to promote the future prospects of a group of pupils than their school has. Last Tuesday the Guardian revealed the pernicious practice by St Olave’s grammar school of discarding students at the end of year 12 if they look less than likely to achieve an A or B grade. By this morning, in the face of persistent negative headlines and a legal challenge, the Guardian and the BBC led with the story that St Olave’s had had a change of heart and invited those students whom they recently asked to leave, to remain at the school. So far so good. But whilst St Olave’s has taken the biggest hit, what’s become clear in the response to the Guardian article is just how many schools – including comprehensives – engage in similar practice, in order to keep results high.

Criticism about the practice of discarding students at year 12  has been strong, along with condemnation of the obsession with league tables that drives it. But despite all this, the Guardian and the BBC have continued to describe St Olave’s as “the leading grammar”, a “top school” and so on. This kind of language is borrowed directly from the league tables the news story is decrying. Our collective understanding of these words in relation to schools is that they have the highest results (not hard to achieve if you select students in the first case like St Olave’s do, of course). But demonstrating how to destroy the self-esteem of 17 year olds isn’t my idea of showing leadership. The students concerned might be top of the discard heap, but that doesn’t make their school ‘top’ at anything other than protecting its own exam rating. Continuing to use this kind of language just perpetuates the idea that ‘top’ schools are those with the best results, not those best equipped to meet the needs of their pupils.

There’s talk of government having performance targets around retention in the sixth form, to dissuade schools from discarding students  they don’t view as up to scratch. But that’s a sticking plaster, not a cure. (After all, Government aren’t minded to do anything other than pretend that all students will achieve A grades in schools kicked into gear by a dose of (un)healthy competition. Policies such as sixth form retention targets are just a defence in case of voter backlash when inevitable injustices occur.) What I think we need instead is a  fundamental rethink about the purpose of education in the 21st century, with a concomitant change in thinking about how school success should be measured, and of the language used to do so.  Here’s a start: my idea of an exemplary school is one which aims to demonstrates the capacity to respond to its pupils educational, emotional and social needs, and set them up for adulthood. A school requiring improvement would be one focused only on a single domain at the expense of others: that is to say, one not unlike St Olave’s.

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