Tuesday 13 September 2011

A Primary Head writes to Michael Gove

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Dear Mr Gove,

I am writing to you to express my concern in relation to the way that these ‘200 list’ schools have been selected and to provide you with a much fuller picture which goes beyond the raw statistics which have been used in this selection.

I have analysed the Local Authority comparative statistics on Local schools. It is apparent from these statistics that my school’s position is very similar to and better than many Local schools, yet we have been selected as one of the three schools. Could you please throw some light on how specifically my school was chosen, with reference to the criteria used and with reference to the data that the DFE holds on other Local schools in similar circumstances?

I took over The school five years ago, the eleventh head teacher in the space of one and a half years. In 2004/5 the school had been taken over by the LA as it had gone into meltdown – behaviour was out of control and learning was not happening leading to SATs results of around 20%. When I took over the school, I judged every aspect of the school as inadequate and set out on a very effective school improvement process which culminated in the school being judged as satisfactory with good features half way through my first year. Our last OFSTED inspection judged us as being good or outstanding in twenty out of thirty of the criteria, with leadership and management, teaching, learning and progress amongst those aspects being judged as good and care guidance and support and partnerships to support learning judged as outstanding. The school received a monitoring visit in February 2011 which agreed that we had made good progress since the last inspection, and that, in particular ‘school leaders have generated a palpable drive for improvement and taken carefully considered steps to ensure that other staff have moved with them. Consequently, there is a strong sense of purposeful action throughout the school. Strategies to monitor progress and manage performance are of a very high quality. Leaders know their school well and have a precise picture of what future actions are needed. This is because they review and evaluate their actions sharply and honestly. The way in which leaders reflect on their practice, what has worked well and what has not, and their ability to adapt plans and actions swiftly according to the evidence they have considered is impressive. This results in school improvement plans that are sharply focused with clear, measurable success criteria and a school that is demonstrably improving provision and outcomes for its pupils.’

 

OFSTED also commented that ‘accurate school data indicate some improving trends. Gaps in performance between different groups of pupils are narrowing throughout the school. Pupils’ attainment is improving well in Key Stage 1. Compared to national expectations though, pupils’ attainment at the end of KS2 remains stubbornly low despite staff’s strenuous efforts and systematic and consistent approaches to raise it. The time that a pupil remains at the school is the most critical determinant of pupils’ achievement and has a marked impact on their attainment and progress. Pupils who start the school in EYFS and stay until the end of Year 6 make much better progress overall and attain broadly average standards.’

 

The DFE analysis of data does not include any reference to school context. But school context is an extremely important factor in the relative success of a school. Context should never be an excuse, but it is a factor. The italics above refer to the fact that one key contextual factor the DFE have failed to recognise as influential in determining relative success in terms of standards, is the amount of and quality of mobility. Twenty five per cent of my school population changed over the last academic year and thirty six per cent in the previous year, equating to a change over two years of sixty one per cent. In effect, we begin the school year with one set of pupils and end the year with another. The quality of this mobility is also of key importance – the majority of new entrants to the school have English as an Additional Language or are new to English, and many of these are from Czech Roma Traveller backgrounds and have no previous school experience. Whilst at the school, these children make good progress, but if a child enters Year 4 at level 1c, even outstanding progress will not allow that child to reach level 4 by the end of year 6. The longer children spend at the school, the higher their attainment. This is illustrated by the fact that in last year’s year 6 only twelve children have been with us from the beginning of EYFS. Out of these 12 children 95% attained level 4 and 50% level 5. As we track the cohort from EYFS through their school career the effect of this mobility is significant. They point I am making is that everything we are putting in place works and has been praised highly by the LA, but mobility is the factor which leads to low standards. If we had a consistent cohort of pupils from the beginning to the end of the school, I know we would be an outstanding school. More on this later.

 

In addition to this, all of our SIP reports have been extremely positive about the school and the work which we have carried out is held in high regard by the LA. I have been involved in supporting at least 4 other local schools.

 

The Primary School is situated in an area of extreme economic deprivation. As a result of this there are many factors which we need to consider in developing a school which provides an appropriate response to the issues with which we are confronted on a daily basis. These issues include:

  • High rates of mobility
  • High numbers of new to English and EAL children
  • Very low levels of learning on entry
  • Lack of engagement and passivity of parents and carers
  • Issues around attendance and punctuality
  • Low aspiration linked to worklessness
  • High numbers of vulnerable children
  • Low levels of personal, social and emotional development
  • Residual effects of home circumstances including lack of sleep, poor diet

 

In addition to this, the effects of the crisis which occurred at the school in 2005 should not be underestimated. During this crisis learning and behaviour dramatically worsened and during a long period of time learning did not take place because behaviour was so poor. As well as this the quality of teaching and learning was poor. Over the last five years we have been working extremely hard to fill in the gaps in learning for those many children who were at the school during this period of turmoil, as well as responding in an efficient and effective way to the quality of all aspects of the school. It was as if we were starting the school from scratch. Within a short period of time many aspects of the school have grown from inadequate to good or outstanding, including learning and progress, capacity to improve, the quality of teaching, partnerships, care guidance and support and leadership and management. This has been a great success story, but the success has not manifested itself in improved standards partly due to the context described above, but mainly due to the fact that mobility in the school is extremely high (36% change in population 2009-10, 25% change 2010-11).

 

As well as this our location leads to difficulties in recruiting staff and governors.

 

I do not, by any means, mention the above as an excuse, but as an essential starting point from which we need to plan our organisation. We are a learning focused organisation and, as such, we need to put context and the needs of children and families at the centre of all we do. We need to understand what learning is and how our children learn; we need to understand the things that effect learning and the things that effect learning for our children; we need to understand the most effective and efficient methods for developing children’s learning, accelerating progress and raising standards; we need to develop the best curriculum to lead to the best learning; we need recruit and develop the best staff, in the right roles, doing the right things, for the right outcomes; we need to develop a leadership capacity so that leadership is distributed; we need to develop a staff team whose roles are configured at the right level to address the many and varied needs of the children and families with whom we work.

 

Our organisation is focused on providing the best possible education for our children, with the highest expectations, so that we can as a team empower all children to be aspirant lifelong learners who have successful educational careers and have increased life choices and life chances, so that the cycle of deprivation which many families are trapped within can be broken.

 

This means that we need all members of the organisation to have the moral urgency to change lives. We need people who need to work here, because working here is hard. It is hard because of the daily issues with which we are confronted, because of the very low starting points and the amount that needs to be done to accelerated progress, because of the pastoral needs of our children and our parents and carers.

 

We need the best quality teaching and learning and so the development of learning and teaching is at the centre of all we do and the monitoring and evaluation of learning and teaching and outcomes needs to be thorough. Data needs to be multi layered so that we can accurately assess and develop the needs of our many groups of children, so that we can examine the impacts of mobility and respond to this, so that we can ensure that all children, from whichever group they belong, thrive and make progress.

 

This means we need to be an inclusive school in its widest sense – a school which accepts all, and responds to all in the best way possible.

 

The school has a relentless focus on attainment and achievement. The high levels of mobility exacerbated by the significant number of children whose data cannot be reflected in CVA measures and the impacts of mobility on target setting, tracking and standards, make data analysis very complex. Therefore as well as analysing our published data we spend a lot of time and energy in drilling down through school data to inform school improvement.

 

The school is a very complex school with many factors presenting barriers to progress for children and families. We do not present this context as an excuse to relatively low standards, but as an essential consideration in understanding the barriers which do exist to learning and progress and to understanding our very positive responses to these.

Factors presenting barriers to progress include:

  • Located in an area with significant social deprivation.
  • Over 90% families live in 10% most deprived households in terms of super output area.
  • Our school is set in a super output area which is in the bottom 3% of IMD.
  • Acorn data tells us that 89.3% of our population are moderate means or hard pressed and 50.8% are hard pressed.
  • FSM 64%
  • 12 refugee and asylum seeker pupils
  • 22 ethnicities represented
  • 31 languages represented
  • High percentage overcrowded houses, with the majority of children living in rented accommodation
  • Worklessness significantly high; many families 2nd generation worklessness
  • High number of parents with multiple relationships; many children live in variety of extended families -this is a constantly changing picture
  • High number of lone parents and many changes in family circumstances
  • Currently 457 including F1 on roll: Mobility high and constantly changing picture
  • 36% of our school population changed over the academic year 2009-10 and mobility continues to be a significant issue for us
  • Changing population: 61.5%% BME (99% WBRI 2001). 48% EAL. 38.5% WBRI
  • Few families traditionally accessed higher education and 45% of parents no qualifications which affects attitudes to education and engagement in education significantly
  • Attendance well below NA but now on an upward trend
  • Current SEN 41%
  • Very high number of vulnerable children on roll and a high number of children on internal cause for concern register (38.6%).
  • High number of needy families.
  • Significant barriers to learning as a result of context: eg. Mobility, EAL, parental attitude, lack of routines at home etc. mean that the combined effect is considerable. The school puts high on the agenda the need to invest a great deal of time and energy into reducing barriers for families to support children. Children’s needs form the basis of all of our work and are central to our curriculum development and learning approaches, as well as approaches to extended services, work with parents and pastoral care. In response to need we have invested in a wide team of pastoral staff, widened provision for vulnerable children linked to coaching, parent support plans, STEPS group work, attendance team initiatives, and 1:1 tutoring, Safe Harbour for children new to the school.
  • We are always aware that we have the children for 15% of the time and need to make in-roads into the 85% of time they spend out of school, but lack of capacity both in the cluster and within school, is a major barrier to progress
  • Despite the many challenges, our children are well behaved and adapt well to school life and learning.
  • School went into significant melt down in 2004-5 and was taken over by local authority – still remains of impacts in terms of gaps in learning for some cohorts and assessment related issues affecting CVA;
  • The leadership structure has been changed since the last inspection as a result of a wholesale review of all aspects of the school which includes new phases, leadership team, organisational aspects
  • We have increased our work with a wide range of partnerships since the last inspection
  • There has been a high degree of staff turnover as a result of capability related work and positive recruitment of new staff across the school
  • There has been a significant widening of the support staff team
  • School moved from schools causing concern category to a lead school category in the LA
  • The school now has National Healthy School Status

The academisation of my school, and potential change of leadership will not add anything to the quality of what we do already. The only significant change which would lead to securing good and better attainment is to reduce mobility significantly. Forced academisation will not move this school community forward, but will lead to a destabilised situation which will distract from our real core business –to improve the life chances of the children and families we serve.

It would be interesting to hear your response to the issues I have raised and look forward to hearing from you.

 

Yours Sincerely,

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1 comment

  1. Jane said:

    It is a disgrace that this school is being treated as a failure when they are working so hard in such difficult circumstances.

    17 September 2011 at 2:50pm