‘The job that we love is being undermined’

Government policy on curriculum, exam and assessment is crippling headteachers. The result? There will be no one left to do the job . . .

We have 23 years of headship experience between us, all of them in communities that face challenging issues. We are both national leaders of education (for now!) and we both have a significant track record in raising standards.

There are other things we have in common – such as believing we are privileged to do the best job in the world and never allowing poverty to be used as an excuse for under-performance or low aspiration.

We know that leadership matters most in communities where young people rely on their academy to drive their aspiration and compensate for the challenges they face every day, and we have both decided to serve and lead in these contexts rather than one where the young people come from highly aspirant families.

School leaders with courage will defy an enforced English Bacc

But this job, one that we love, is now undermined by government policy on curriculum, exam and assessment. It is being undermined to the point that being a leader in schools and academies like ours is becoming so unattractive we fear there will be no one left to do the job.

Our young people are being denied the rewards of their work. Our system is unable to judge and measure genuine improvement in standards, and genuine expertise in school improvement is being lost.

The key lever for school improvement is to ensure that the curriculum delivers student destinations while demonstrating that excellent attendance and hard work in school gets you a good career path. In raising both aspirations and standards, context is hugely important. We need autonomy to judge the best curriculum for our context, and to be able develop it as the context changes.

One size does not fit all; one size fits no one. An enforced so-called “English Baccalaureate” (and there is a misnomer if ever there was one) will be defied by all school leaders with courage. Our worry is for those without the courage, or the support from their governors, to do so – and so the children in their schools may well fail to find a route into the job of their dreams.

This summer we were told that exam pass rates are broadly similar to last year’s and that this means standards are being maintained. It means nothing of the kind – it means there has been a political decision taken and implemented to ensure that exam pass rates remain broadly similar. We are told that this will cause volatility and that some schools will go up and some schools will go down and that we should expect that.

It is obvious to us that if you create a zero sum game where only a certain percentage pass rate is allowed, then of course if one school increases its pass rate, another must decrease. It is also obvious to us that it makes it impossible to measure system improvement.

But, above all else, it is obvious to us that young people in communities such as ours are arbitrarily treated as mere collateral damage in the quest for some statistical proof that standards are not being eroded. By that kind of logic we could pass far fewer pupils and say standards had risen!

The minor tweaks that occur at national level – setting the “C grade” boundary at one point higher to reduce a pass rate by 0.3 per cent rather than to see it rise by 2.5 per cent, for example – may be a minor tweak nationally, but in some of our academies and schools this causes a tsunami effect. The schools and academies most likely to experience the tsunami are inevitably those where there are a larger number of young people with low prior attainment — or those students for which a C grade is truly aspirational.

So we see anomalies such as an academy with a 100 per cent improvement in A*-B grades, but a 15 per cent drop in its five A*-Cs (including English and maths). We see completely stable teaching teams containing examiners and with a history of accurate predictions experiencing a 20 per cent gap between A*-C predictions and results. And we see distraught young people, teachers and principals.

When a tiny national tweak can totally distort an improving academy’s data, what story is a principal, who never makes excuses for underperformance, supposed to tell Ofsted? What is he or she supposed to tell their governors? Should they just resign?

It is time that this whole tangled and sorry mess is properly addressed or we will not be able to make proper judgments about whether our academies and schools have improved or not, and we will not be able to get anyone to take on the job of leading them.

Vic Goddard and Ros McMullen are members of the core group of @HeadsRoundtable

Vic Goddard, executive principal, Passmores Academy, Essex
Ros McMullen, executive principal, David Young Community Academy, Leeds

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  1. I’m fairly sure that Vic & Ros did not deliberately intend to suggest that Headteachers fall into two distinct categories-those with courage and those without? The following does imply this:

    “English Baccalaureate” (and there is a misnomer if ever there was one) will be defied by all school leaders with courage. Our worry is for those without the courage, or the support from their governors, to do so – and so the children in their schools may well fail to find a route into the job of their dreams.

    Context is everything. Whilst I agree that a complete submission to the EBacc ‘for every pupil’ could be deemed as a Sir Robin of Camelot approach, am I lacking courage to have the EBacc for all as a starting aspiration at the point of secondary entry?

  2. Sean Hayes

    I could not agree more and appreciate the situation being summarised so succinctly. Will copy for my full governing body meeting this week.
    I too head a school in challenging circumstances and have a lot of contextual data, after many hours additional work this week, to help governors and others understand why ‘volatility’ has caused our results to fall from expected level and from 2014 level. What potential parents, Ofsted, LA and others make of the headline figures remains to be seen. A level playing field it is not.