Archive for November, 2010

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The Outstanding School

November 22, 2010

For a short while I worked at Mallon Park School. OFSTED had rated it as “outstanding”. Its exam results were a little better than average (i.e. a lot better than all the other schools I have worked in), but given its intake this was a significant achievement. This was a school which served a very deprived community but achieved far more than similar schools. It was better than the other schools I have worked in, but it was still a battleground school.

It differed from my other schools in the following ways:

  • SMT had real presence around the site. On every lesson change-over they would come out of their offices and go to the main thoroughfares of the school. During lessons they would pop into classes to keep an eye on students. They were known to, and feared by, the students.
  • SMT were reliable. Not once during the time I was at the school did I feel a member of SMT had lied to me. Not once did I feel that something I had referred to SMT had been ignored.
  • The conflict between the key departments and management did not exist. There were members of SMT and Heads of Year teaching in, and helping to lead, all the important departments.
  • There was much better targeting of resources at key students. The results owed a large amount to correctly identifying which students would affect results and using early entry to ensure that as many of them as possible were prepared for their exams by the most senior teachers. There was a lot of “gaming” of the exam system, with exam boards being carefully chosen for maximum advantage.
  • Those aspects of poor behaviour that senior management could confront around the school were far less of a problem. Uniforms were largely excellent. I never saw a mobile phone in a student’s hand while I was there.

Some bad features of the school system persisted even in an outstanding school:

  • A significant number of incompetent but ambitious middle managers, failing to do their job and blaming classroom teachers for their failings. This was particularly noticeable in the case of some of the year heads who simply couldn’t teach and had no idea how to support teachers.
  • An SEN department making excuses for bad behaviour. My description of INSET on SEN came from Mallon Park.
  • Low academic and behaviour expectations for pupils. Outside of the current crop of target students expectations were shockingly low, particularly for the least able. Some of the bottom sets contained students who simply were not used to learning in lessons, and were quite shocked when I expected them to start working without first being nagged by a teaching assistant. Behaviour was still a massive problem for new staff.
  • High levels of bullshit in teaching practice. The whole school were initiated into “Kagan Structures”. One department used WALT, WILF and TIBs. “Assesment For Learning” was widely interpreted as meaning “using mini-whiteboards” and “getting kids to tick boxes”.

The OFSTED designation “outstanding” has been used more and more in recent years. My experience of an outstanding school was that it was significantly better than the “good”, “satisfactory” and “notice to improve” schools I had worked in previously.  However, I don’t believe there was one teacher in the entire school who would have considered, even for a second, sending their own kids there. “Outstanding” probably does indicate that a school is not the usual disaster area. However,  often (but not always) it is still only good enough for other people’s children.

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Have Sixth-Formers Changed?

November 9, 2010

This comes from a discussion I was having here:

http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.com/politics/omg-csr-ema-rip/

I was reflecting on the value of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a system of means tested payments made to students in sixth-forms and FE colleges.

It occurred to me that in the last few years, I had noticed more and more A-level students doing part-time jobs which got in the way of their studies. It had always been very common for sixth form students to do Saturday jobs, but increasingly they seem to be doing Saturday, Sunday and weekday evening jobs making it very impractical to set homework to be in for the very next day. Some other teachers and lecturers I know have noticed something similar. I would be interested to know what anybody else thinks.

If I am right there are a number of possible explanations.

Firstly, this could be a result of the EMA. It has put cash in the hands of students who would previously have been dependent on their parents. It may have prompted a shift in culture among sixth-formers in favour of financial autonomy and greater disposable income, making even those students who receive little or no EMA more likely to want cash of their own and, therefore, more likely to get jobs.

Alternatively, it could be a result of the dumbing-down of the curriculum. Students doing easy vocational courses, or students who have recently done well in dumbed-down GCSEs, may simply have far lower expectations of how much effort is required for study at Key Stage 5, therefore the opportunity to work long hours is far more appealing than it would have been a few years ago. I think a lot of students doing A-level courses, particularly in more challenging subjects, do end up regretting the lack of time spent on their studies.

Another possibility, is that the increase in students from more deprived backgrounds has meant that there are more students in sixth forms and FE colleges who would be unable to support themselves during their studies without an additional source of income. In some ways this is a more obvious explanation, but the introduction of the EMA and the minimum wage should have counter-acted this to some extent, making it easier for those students to manage without working long hours.

I’d be grateful to hear people’s opinions. As a secondary teacher I don’t spend a huge amount of time with sixth form classes and I am aware that there are a lot of readers who are far more familiar with FE than I am.

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