The system for holding our schools to account is broken – and it’s breaking both our children and our teachers.
Despite all the rhetoric about increased power and choice for parents, their role and influence has been diminished. There has been little improvement in the educational outcomes for children leaving school since 2010 and the only things that have dramatically risen in that time are teachers’ workloads, cases of children’s mental health problems and the number of children living in poverty.
Increasing numbers of children are being home schooled. There are worries that this is because schools are moving supposedly low-achieving children on for the sake of the exam league tables – a practice known as “off-rolling” – or because parents refuse to allow their children to be exposed to modern day state education.
Many of our children face a limited educational diet because schools solely focus on English and maths in their fight to avoid being put into special measures. Time that used to be available for other subjects is swallowed up with extra maths or English ‘boosters’ or ‘interventions’, so inevitably other subjects suffer.
The behaviour policies set by some chains and schools are also under scrutiny, with some questioning whether they illegally damage the rights of children. The Children’s Commissioner had to intervene and write to the previous Secretary of State to ask her to remind schools that their behaviour policies should not violate the rights of children. Social mobility, if it ever existed, has stalled and now some – even those appointed by the government – are turning to eugenics to excuse why some children fail to achieve.
To illustrate just one example of how our flawed accountability system has unintended consequences and drives unwanted behaviour I want to focus on school attendance.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb has repeatedly stated that: “Even one day missed from school without very good reason is one too many” and when launching the change to school attendance his ‘behaviour tsar’ Charlie Taylor said: “This is why good primary schools take a zero tolerance approach to poor attendance from the very start of school life.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-data-highlights-true-picture-of-school-absence)
Ofsted says for a school to be ‘outstanding’:
“Pupils value their education and rarely miss a day at school. No groups of pupils are disadvantaged by low attendance. The attendance of pupils who have previously had exceptionally high rates of absence is rising quickly towards the national average.”
But the unintended consequences of these well-meaning statements can provoke real concern among parents: witness the thousands who signed a petition protesting against the East Sussex County Council school attendance campaign, a campaign they called ‘aggressive’ and ‘offensive’.
A Facebook post from a parent explaining why she wouldn’t let her child collect their attendance award was viewed and shared over four million times and sparked a debate about the fairness of such policies, (see photo).
I was a primary teacher for 11 years and attendance awards were just part of school life. But a recent visit from a constituent showed just how problematic they can be for some who cannot avoid missing school. This constituent was a parent of a child who had developed significant mental health problems and extreme anxiety. She had become very ill and was finding it impossible to attend school. The parent believed that the school were more focused on her child’s attendance than her welfare.
During this difficult time the parent was seeking support from CAMHS, whilst facing the obvious delays in getting an appointment. The pressure from the school to force her child to go to school was fuelling her child’s anxiety and it was only when her child’s hair started to fall out that the school “backed off.” The parent was going to be fined for her daughter’s lack of attendance but luckily the judge in the case had some common sense.
When the parent tried to get her child into a different school, following a mental health diagnosis, the head of year called her into the school to set targets for her child’s attendance. This school knew that the child had a mental health condition and that she had been out of school for months but still prioritised her attendance over her health.
The child never returned to school. The targets for attendance set back her recovery and her parent instead sent her to the local 14-16 college.
The attendance issue is not an isolated example. Our accountability regime means pupils are losing out in many ways: Fewer children are studying music, some pupils are not allowed to choose subjects they are interested in if the school doesn’t believe they will get the top grades, while less time is being spent on sport despite the epidemic in childhood obesity.
The only way we will get the broad and balanced curriculum we need, make every child matter again and remove the fear that permeates every aspect of school life, is with a radical overhaul of our toxic accountability regime.
Schools should of course be held to account. But the current set-up, with its focus on centralised – and often arbitrary – targets that is distorting our whole educational system.
(This is a copy of the article I wrote for the Fabian magazine)