I’ve read a couple of interesting and honest posts from Headteacher colleagues in the last week or so, speaking truths about the way the system is at the moment and how it offers no incentive for schools to be inclusive. They both reminded me why a sense of moral purpose rather than a drive to become ‘top of the pile’ is the most important part of school leadership, perhaps more now than ever before.
Brian Walton (@oldprimaryhead) writes here about the problems we have in the system with career-defining OFSTED judgements and the inordinate amount of emphasis placed on published data from high stakes testing and calls for more integrity and moral backbone from school leaders who, interestingly, he blames for bringing this mindset on themselves. Whilst I’m less convinced about the root of the problems than Brian (or either whether trying to pin the blame on anyone is important), his post articulates many of the problems with the current regime with both passion and a fearful honesty that only someone sat in the hot seat of Headship will truly recognise.
In this post, Simon Smith (@Smithsmm) talks about his ‘fight to be an inclusive school’ and how the system seems ‘rigged’ against inclusion from a funding perspective. I feel Simon’s pain as much as I admire both his honesty and commitment to inclusion.
I’ve written previously about why I think elements of our system need to change and, in particular, why the OFSTED Outstanding tag should be ditched. Here are a few more thoughts on a few problems with the current wider system and why OFSTED grades and league tables often aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
- Schools that are top of the league tables are generally those from more affluent communities or those with fewer disadvantaged children include children or those with SEND. In Northamptonshire (my county) for example, the top 10 performing primary schools in 2016 were all in villages; the lowest 10 were all in towns. The knock on from this is that many talented teachers and school leaders outside the towns are deterred from taking jobs in the areas of most need and the wrong messages are both written and read about the contribution that many great teachers and schools make.
- Schools that are graded outstanding are not necessarily the best schools; they are those who have very low levels of deprivation. In fact, if you have less than 5% of children eligible for Pupil Premium, there’s almost a 50% chance that you will be in an outstanding school and you are 3 times more likely to be outstanding than a school with high levels of deprivation. The most concerning statistic is perhaps that by taking on a Headship of a school with more than 23% of children eligible for Pupil Premium, you are 15 times more likely to be judged ‘inadequate’ by OFSTED than by running a school with less than 5% disadvantaged children (Source: Education Policy Institute, November 2016).
- It is more difficult for schools with higher levels of deprivation to make the jump up between OFSTED grades compared to schools with more disadvantaged children on role. The EPI report in 2016 into OFSTED inspections in England shows that the least deprived primary schools are twice as likely to improve their OFSTED rating as those with the most deprivation whereas secondary schools are three times more likely.
- A key plank of the ‘self-improving system’ is currently built on the myth that the great practice in outstanding schools is replicable into schools in areas of more deprivation and that somehow, the magic of National Leaders of Education and National Challenge Schools will rub off on failing schools and all will be well. The reality, however, is that the majority of these schools and NLEs exist in areas of low deprivation and therefore the same systems and practices that work well in these schools just aren’t replicable and often these types of intervention fail or are no more than surface level engagement. We must challenge this assumption; it’s as daft as taking managers and coaches from Barcelona who are used to large budgets, highly skilled players and silky pitches and getting them to try and introduce a one touch pass and move game at Northampton Town to try and keep ‘The Cobblers’ from being relegated back to Division 2.
- There is no incentive in the system for those teachers and school leaders to leave their successful schools and take on big challenges in tough communities. Why on earth would a Head who is sat on a successful school in an area of low deprivation give up this relative security to go and enter the crazy world of town or inner city headship with its inevitable annual battle with floor standards, intervention and uncertainty over their future unless they are driven by a moral purpose or a personal desire to take on a bigger challenge?
- Schools that include more children with SEND receive less money to support these children which creates a perverse anti-incentive for schools to be inclusive and has, sadly, driven some schools to some disappointing practices around inclusion. I am incredibly proud to be a Headteacher of an inclusive town school with a Special Unit with 12 children on roll, a further 24 children who have either an EHCP, Statement or High Needs Funding and an additional number of children that you would expect to find in any typical primary school who either receive SEND Support or are in the process of investigation or diagnosis. When schools receive funding for children with EHCPs or High Needs Funding, there is an assumption that the school will fund the initial £6,000 from its budget via a ‘notional SEN’ amount but in reality there is no more funding in the first place for schools who have more children on their role with SEND. At our school for example, there are apparently 24 lots of £6,000 ‘in our budget’ (£144,000) which are then ‘topped up’ by the local authority yet we only receive the same base funding as a school that may have 4 children with similar needs and so needs to provide less notional funding into their staffing (£24,000). This disparity is wrong and unmanageable and, again, creates a disincentive for schools to become great at inclusion and to make this publicly known.
- Schools with Special Units do not have this taken into account when their data is published either in league tables, via RaiseOnline and it is not taken into account in measures such as floor targets or coasting schools. Whilst in reality, good inspectors will always recognise this and take account of it during inspection, it means that these schools always have to start conversations on the back foot challenging an external assumption that the school is underperforming . Inclusive schools shouldn’t have to exist on a process of being viewed as guilty before being proven innocent.
- The same schools who have higher deprivation, higher levels of SEN (and therefore more chance of getting into trouble with OFSTED) are those which are set to lose more money than the others through the proposed funding changes. Read here about how the biggest losers are those schools in Inner Cities or Urban areas. in Northampton Town, it’s the schools with high deprivation who are set to lose the most according to the NFF consultation spreadsheet.
So, in summary, our current system rewards those schools, teachers and headteachers both financially and in terms of OFSTED and league table recognition with low levels of SEND and deprivation in their schools and, unwittingly, drives unwanted behaviours and practices around inclusion in some schools. It then proposes as a solution that the same methods that work in the most privileged communities can be picked up and applied to those in the most challenging areas despite evidence that clearly shows it is a different game altogether whilst, at the same time, providing no incentive for those school leaders in successful schools to get their hands dirty in those schools and communities that desperately need more help and support.
I think perhaps there might be better ways to go about improving schools and social mobility in England and that the ‘self-improving system’ needs a different set of levers to drive the behaviour of schools and their leaders if it is to make meaningful improvements to schools in challenging contexts.
What do you think?