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A Tale of Three Schools

October 22, 2022

The provisional GCSE results for 2022 were published on Thursday. The score that now gets the most attention is Progress 8, a measure of value added achievement across the curriculum. It is designed so that 0 should be around average and schools are divided into positive and negative scores based on whether their pupils have achieved higher or lower than would be expected from their Key Stage 2 scores. This week’s results are the first results based on actual exams since 2019.

I was particularly interested in the results of three schools. I am ashamed to admit that these are not schools I have a close connection to, and my interest results from the hype about them on social media and on Twitter in particular. This means that what I am about to write reflects my interests, and, therefore, my biases. It also should be noted that the results website has warnings about the problems with making comparisons between schools because of the disruption caused by lockdowns.

I will not be naming the three schools I was interested in. There’s no great secret being withheld here; if you are familiar with any of them you will probably recognise them from the description. Any Google detective can find them. But I have no interest in school shaming and it’s the stories that matter here, not getting people on social media to focus on individual school leaders.

School A – The Traditionalist School

School A is a small free school (120 pupils in year 11) set up by a controversial public figure. It was rated Outstanding by Ofsted before it had published any results. It is known for its strict discipline, particularly its silent corridors. Its controversial headteacher has been described as “Britain’s strictest headmistress” and is a hate figure for supporters of progressive education. Its curriculum is highly academic. Its teaching is very much teacher led. It has been subjected to the most appalling hate campaign from people who seem obsessed with proving that it is cruel and misguided. It has had a very high profile with lots of newspaper articles written about it and a documentary made and broadcast on network television. In 2019, it had its first set of results, which included an incredible Progress 8 score of 1.53. So hated is this school, that its critics have repeatedly pointed out that 4 other schools in England got a higher Progress 8 score, including one in the same LA. It’s hard to imagine any other school being criticised for only being the 5th best in England.

This year, how did School A do? It got a Progress 8 score of 2.27. This time it was the top score of any school in England.

School B – The Progressive School.

School B is philosophically the polar opposite of School A, although it is also a free school and also has a small intake (in fact it’s even smaller with 49 pupils in year 11). This is how a local paper described the approach of the Academy Trust built around it:

…famous for pioneering an alternative method of education focused on creativity as well as academic progress. Pupils are given increased freedoms, conduct their own research and do not need to wear uniforms.

According to a national education news site:

Teachers teach cross-subject, making use of their interests as well as the subjects in which they are academically trained.

Like School A, it has been covered by newspapers, often in a much more positive way. It has also featured in a documentary available on youtube. Some of this media coverage has talked of “outstanding results”, although it’s Progress 8 score of 0.21 in 2019 was hardly in the top rank, particularly given its small cohort. Like school A it was rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

This year, how did School B do? It got a Progress 8 score of -0.78. Even taking account of the small cohort, this makes the school well below average, calling into question its Ofsted rating and the praise of its admirers.

School C – The school that changed

If the other two schools are both exceptional for their distinctive ethos, my final school is exceptional for how the ethos changed. An academy school, it first became prominent for its strict discipline. In 2019, a newspaper article described the head as “Britain’s strictest headmaster” and credited him with turning around a failing school. Much controversy followed, with the school attracting a hate campaign that was smaller than School A’s, but equally obsessive. After being rated Outstanding by Ofsted for a second time in 2018, online trolls used a Freedom of Information request to get the inspectors’ notes and used these to make accusations of off-rolling despite inspectors not concluding this was an issue. Sue Cowley, a prominent advocate of lax discipline in secondary schools, even sent her own FOI request demanding information about exclusions and departures from the school, presumably hoping to find evidence that Ofsted had overlooked.

Impressively, the school achieved a P8 score of 1.16 in 2019 putting it in the top 20 schools in England, level with the much celebrated Mossbourne Community Academy in London. In an ideal world, this story would continue in the same way as the story of School A, with a clearly effective approach being consolidated, and further improvements in results being made. However, this was not to be. The traditionalist approach of the school’s leadership was not shared by its Multi Academy Trust. The Aspirations Academy Trust describes itself on Twitter as “committed to transforming learning to fully equip students with 21st century skills…”. The details are not public but the incredibly successful leadership team of the school moved on and were replaced with those with a different philosophy. In a profile in 2020, the head of school C was described as being on “a mission to move on from the school’s ‘no excuses’ mantra”. In another article she commented on the school’s former leader:

It does seem that his philosophy didn’t reflect the Aspirations Academies Trust. I’m here today to tell you that, moving forward, it’s about having a happy and productive community within the school for students.

This year, how did the once high achieving School C do? It got a Progress 8 score of -0.34.

One of England’s best schools is now very much below average, following a philosophical conversion. Serious questions need to be asked. Why is a MAT able to ruin a highly successful school for ideological reasons? Why does a school maintain its outstanding rating from Ofsted even after it has not only lost the leaders who made it outstanding, but publicly disowned their beliefs? I realise some schools will inevitably be below average, and there are plenty of school leaders who would be happy to get their Progress 8 up to -0.34, but for what was once one of England’s top schools to decline like this is a scandal. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, is held to account for this.

Exam results are one of the few ways by which we know whether a school is living up to its hype or not. Remember, all three of these schools were outstanding according to Ofsted. Without exam results, it would be easy for a progressive minded person to convince themself that the leaders of School A, and the original leadership of School C were monsters, whereas the leaders of School B and the new leadership of School C were heroes. That’s certainly what much of the commentary on social media was claiming. However, if you value children’s learning, then a working system of standardised exams is your best ally, as exam results reveal what lies behind the hype. Now that the results are out, the true story of Schools A, B and C can be told and the effectiveness of their educational approach can be seen. Odd then, that we still see calls for exams to be replaced with more subjective measures.

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9 comments

  1. I am an English teacher at a Kent secondary school. We share many of the values of School A and we deliver good progress for our students. Not one word of this piece surprises me: both the success of School A and the wilful blindness to the evidence of actual exam scores in preference for old dogmas that have long been discredited. Well done for putting this piece together, it is truly revealing and instructive.


  2. If the results at ‘School A’ were a one-off, then we could claim it was down to local circumstances: parents, headteacher etc.
    If there’s a general rule that links ‘strict’ policies to better results across a large, diverse data-set, we have solid evidence.

    When we see people ignoring the data and condemning the effective schools involved, this indicates an ideological mindset.
    The ideologist ‘knows’ the answer in advance and pick evidence to ‘prove’ their case and must try to discredited opposing evidence.
    The empiricist does not know the answer in advance and uses the evidence to try to see the patterns.


  3. I know School A. But could you please tell me Schools B and C? I’ve done the Google bit, but can’t find them…
    Thanks
    Peter Forsythe


    • I literally included long chunks of text about the schools that can be found online. Just do a Google search with quotation marks around the text.


  4. I’m interested in the design of the histogram; particularly with the placement of “National Average” in the (unspecified) category of -0.25 to 0.00; this implies that the “average” school attains a below average (0.00) result – most peculiar


    • What are you on about? The middle bar is clearly -0.25 to 0.25 with 0 in the centre.
      Clearly the formatting on wordpress / width of picture makes it hard for Andrew to show the scale but it’s pretty clear to me based on what is visible.


      • Also just to say that someone should actually ask themselves why the graph is negatively skewed and whether this reflects socio-economic trends in society or if something else is afoot (i.e. it really is worth trying to get into a good school as otherwise you’re effed!)


        • Looking at School C’s histogram, the purple bar which includes their result is -0.49 to -0.25. The next bar, which includes the “National Average” marker must then be from -0.25 to 0.

          There is no bar which goes from -0.25 to 0.25; that would be two bars; there is no indication that the bar that is labelled as the national average is double width bar; instead it appears as if the labelling is only given for every second bar.

          But I think this is largely irrelevant to OldAndrew’s post, so I’ll leave it there.


        • I wouldn’t describe it as negatively skewed, just as having a longer negative tail. It’s hard to do really well, but easy to do really badly…



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