The Failing Department

September 1, 2011

I do occasionally ask if anybody has anything they’d like to contribute to this blog. About once a year something comes in, although invariably from someone I know in real-life. This was written by an old friend of mine who is now a senior teacher at a church school. I think you’ll be able to guess which department he works in.

The Blessed Snowball Academy had a failing dept. Everyone at the school knew it. The teachers knew it, the parents knew it and the kids knew it; they told everyone they hated it. It was the maths department.

The school also has an outstanding department. Everyone at the school knew it this as well. It was the English department. “English good, maths bad” was effectively the school motto. The start of each year consisted of a meeting where statistics were waved about to support the ritual chanting of “English good, maths bad.”  Everything in the school was geared around this motto, and belief. The teachers in the maths department were regularly lambasted, bullied and harassed by pupils and staff alike. Pupils didn’t expect to behave, or learn in the lesson, so the teachers were in a constant battle to make the children learn. Staff turn over was high, only a few remained year on year. The local authority liked them though, they tried all of the new initiatives, current fads, creative ideas to stop being the school’s failing department.

A few years back, the Head of the Blessed Snowball Academy decided to overstaff the maths department by employing some teachers from other successful departments around the country while also getting in and recruiting the top NQTs available. The first thing they did was undermine the relationship between the local authority and the school and introduced “back to basics” education, focused on exam success. In the last few years the department has felt transformed.

After the last set of results the maths department had exceeded the FFTD target by 8%;  in fact their performance put the department in the top 5% of maths departments in the country. The “outstanding” English department had only just hit their FFTD target, and had dropped a few points form last year. So first day back at the start of year meeting the members of the maths department walked in -shoulders back, chins up – feeling that the hard work had been worth it. The talk turned to the exam results, and it was announced:

“If the maths department could have got all the students who passed English to also pass maths then we’d be 20% better off. So maths, you need to do more work to be like our outstanding English department.”

Or in other words: “English good, maths bad.”

Apparently, by not hitting the aspirational targets the department had used to motivate and inspire students, the maths department had failed; they were still the failing department. I wonder how many of the teachers will bother to stay.


  1. I think that school’s managers have let everyone know exactly where they stand. After all they could have said “If the English department could have got those who passed Maths to also pass English…”
    Just like all the media pundits writing on the riots, they have interpreted the results to support what they had already decided.

  2. I predict that science will soon take that mantel from maths and become the new scapegoat.

  3. That really sucks! It sounds like your head needs to read Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets and Dan Pink’s book Drive.

    I’m a head of English and I have made a point of working closely with the maths faculty over the past few years to ensure we jointly target those key students so crucial for 5A*-CEM headline figure. This kind of communication really helps us to know where best to target intervention.

    What’s your head of English like? This isn’t a flattering picture of your English faculty either.

  4. I completely agree with the comment:

    What’s your head of English like? This isn’t a flattering picture of your English faculty either.

    by David Didau (@LearningSpy)

    Departments are stronger when they work together for the students.

  5. Has it ever dawned on anyone that, generally, kids walk in speaking some form of English (in American and English schools)?

    They don’t walk in with a comparable vocabulary in Math.

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