Sunday, 28 September 2014

Choosing A secondary school: Some Advice, Some Condemnation.

In my June 2014 blog, “I am all for extremism in schools,” I called for an end to all faith schools. I claimed they were by nature divisive and encouraged social segregation.  A catholic school headteacher called me “destructive.”  and  that he was taking his balls home. I thought I had been quite reasonable in condemning the holy Irish priests and nuns who had dumped 796 children’s bodies in a Tuam cesspit after they had died in church run children’s homes. I hadn’t even mentioned the thousands of children forcibly removed from Ireland’s “fallen women” and exported to America. And as for the sainted Pope John 23rd’s previously secret 1962 advice to bishops as to how to cover up for paedophile priests – not a word did I say.

In 1978 a group of Christians were offended by an article I had written and held a meeting where they decided not to pray for me. Fine thing, religion.

I had a look at the offended headteacher’s catholic school Ofsted Report and found that his school had fewer than average children entitled to free school and fewer than average children with special needs.

My niece went to a Hertfordshire catholic secondary. In the days when Ofsted judged “inclusivity” they wrote that her school had very few kids on free school meals, very few with special needs and no English as a Second language learners. They could have added that middle class, white catholics pre dominated. Ofsted said that the school was, “outstandingly inclusive.”

I wandered around Ofsted reports on catholic secondaries in these semi rural parts and amazingly the same picture emerged – it seems that, here at least, catholic secondary schools receive relatively few successful applications from the neediest families. When I wrote to all secondary heads in Hertfordshire and asked them to state at Open Evenings, “We welcome children of all abilities, including those with special educational needs,” I received one severe written complaint from an “outstanding” catholic school. Perhaps, we catholics, for you can never leave, are a wee bit defensive.

However, if there’s any doubt on what religious schools should be doing, take a look at Matthew 18:1-6 “ But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 19:14 “let the little children come to me.”

I think that meant all the children, not just the brightest.

This isn’t a blog about catholic schools. Many of our “outstanding” schools have the highest pupil scores on admission. One comprehensive, near me, cannot be judged on “closing the gap” criteria because the slightly weaker, needier students don’t go there. No gap to close. A trawl through five Hertfordshire “outstanding” secondaries will show that, coincidentally I’m sure, their Year 7 children come to them with high SATs results.

The brightest children at age 11 join outstanding schools who are judged that on the basis of levels of progress. Children with mild learning difficulties do not make the same rate of progress as other children. A Level 5 at age 11 has to get a “B” grade at 16 for 3 levels of progress. This is quite easy for a level 5 kid to achieve.

A Level 3 child, one who has achieved the standard of a good 7 year old by age 11, is expected, by Ofsted, to progress to a grade “D” by age 16. This is quite hard for a Level 3 kid to achieve. Such a student does not look good on school results tables.

Ofsted fails schools if most children are not making three levels of progress. Therefore the school needs fewer slowly progressing students to survive and prosper in league tables and with Ofsted. Fair enough, keep those kids out and you are on the way to an “outstanding” grade.

Don’t believe me? As I will show in October’s blog it is considerably easier to get a fat man through the eye of a needle than to be judged outstanding in a school with low entry grades.

To ignore league tables  a headteacher and their governors, would need to be on a mission or have some sort of vocation, and commitment to all students achieving their potential - precisely what we say at open evenings.

I wonder if the point of secondary admissions is to stop the children most in need of a good education actually getting in to the best schools. And, inviting approbation and condemnation from my colleagues, some headteachers seem actively engaged in turning away  children who need and deserve good schools.

When I called the first post war London Co-op’s milkmen’s strike broken bottles were regularly under my car wheels. I best be gentle with the headteachers.

During the next four  weeks thousands of families will be trying to choose the best secondary school for their children. In Hertfordshire this may involve choosing from a group of good schools but for some the choice is still daunting.

Here’s the choosing a secondary school game with Open Evening Bingo in italics:

For some parents the uniform rules can be a tremendous signal of a school’s worth: if it is unfashionable and expensive and can only be bought in one shop there’s your good school. I was speaking with a parent whose son’s blazer cost £130, and very pretty it was too. They may be acting illegally but who’s going to tell? I bet his blazer has never been a goalpost.

Some schools expect an annual “voluntary contribution” from parents – a useful message for families struggling to survive on low incomes at a time when wages have fallen behind prices. I know of a school where the USA football trip – already out of many budgets – demanded that each player’s family bought a £500 Quiz Night table. Another school required every student to buy their own i-pad. Helps keep out the riff raff.

If the school has an admissions test – usually looking for musical or linguistic ability surely that’s your good school.

If the school, “tries hard with kids with special needs but is not very good at it,” that’s surely a sign of excellence, because Ofsted certainly don’t care. We are jolly good with children whose special need is that they are exceptionally bright and you will find their names on our Oxbridge Honours Board.

Why should  schools admit kids who need a little extra help, children who would surely flourish in an outstanding school and soar to mighty heights of academia if there is a risk that Ofsted will criticise, league tables condemn and parents choose elsewhere?

We can’t be having schools which admit children of all abilities, children who may need stretching or supporting, boys and girls who live side by side in the same streets but are selected out of the “good” schools by the schools themselves. Hide the SENCO is a popular Open Evening game amongst some of the “best” schools who find educating children who need a bit of help to catch up the equivalent of climbing mountains in ankle length skirts.

As I approach a 15th Open Evening as headteacher I am aware that these events are proof that every science lesson contains explosions or volcanic actions and that PE teachers wear suits. One must never consider how many children, on how many occasions, contributed to the building of a wonderful kit car.

Once upon a time we all took on specialisms in return for government money. The funding is long gone, the specialism no longer favourably funded and the curriculum demolished and rebuilt on other grounds. Heaven help the school who took PE as a specialism 15 years ago.

The imaginary, “How to be a Headteacher” course tutors us in how to describe our schools. On Open Evenings we are all unique, have a special ethos where moral values are important and teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do.(I love that bit) Miss out the “we teach a traditional academic curriculum and have the highest standards” or,” “We have many gifted and talented students,” and a headteacher may be condemned.

Why do I tell you, “We have the highest standards of behaviour,” and “We aim to help all students fulfil their potential?”

Can you imagine a headteacher suggesting, “Our standards are pretty naff and expectations are low; we tolerate ill-discipline, encourage bullying and kids are scruffy on purpose; our curriculum is unbalanced and, we don’t care if students do well?” Quite obviously, the opposite of what we say at these events is unimaginable – “the Law of the Ridiculous Reverse” ( Simon Hoggart quoted in an excellent “Choosing a secondary school” article in The Guardian 23rd September 2014)

Emphasise Latin if you’ve got it.

The money a school has in its accounts was allocated to schools to educate children. However, thousands of pounds are spent on glossy brochures, designer websites and superfluous adverts. Schools pose the children carefully by the nice tree; blonde girls with ponytails most prominently.

School facilities may well be very good but say, “state of the art,” “the envy of others” or even “the finest in the country,” and pray that no-one asks for the evidence. A few touch screen computers in a library can be state of the art to some of us older people.

Look forward to Open Evening Bingo.  I will be using all the phrases I condemn –did you think I was daft?  You will be looking for gravitas and perhaps accepting that you will be bored listening to my speech. My London accent is a bit common, innit? But at least I don’t drive a powder blue Fiat 500.

If you are choosing a new school for your children, please understand that the vast majority of our schools are better than when you went to school yourself. Teachers are better teachers and lessons are fuller and carefully planned. I think we have a right to good local schools and I am pleased that both my daughters were able to study locally in non selective comprehensives.

Talk to your neighbour’s children about their school, have a look through the literature on the school’s website, ask about extra curricular activities and try to see exam results in relation to your own child’s abilities. Younger students tend not to hate everything so ask the 12 year olds if they enjoy school.

Talk to the students if you can, although I must ask you not to hang around the school gates approaching random kids. One headteacher recently said “It’s important that every child is known,” to which one ex-student muttered, “You never once spoke to me in 5 years.”

Do look at Ofsted Parentview comments. Select “All” for a 3 year total.  Notice, if you do compare, that the majority of parents seem quite happy with their own child’s school.

Read the Ofsted Report, although the prose can be painfully inadequate. Take care. Birmingham’s Park View Academy received the highest Grade 1  accolade and the fine words, “All schools should be like this,” (Ofsted 2012) and  then became the so-called Trojan horse hotbed of Muslim takeover and indoctrination a little over 12 months later. It then received the lowest Ofsted Grade 4.

Ask to visit the school on a normal school day. If we will not let you visit then we may be embarrassed, very, very busy people, aloof or unwelcoming. I am touring with 15 sets of parents next week as I am entirely proud of what we do and the young people who study here.

I didn’t start out to give advice but if you are choosing a school, good luck.

Google an excellent 2008 article by Francis Gilbert, “How to Choose a Secondary School” for some common sense advice or, if in doubt, tell schools your Level 6, gifted daughter plays violin for England and watch them fall over themselves to form a disorderly queue for her admission.

Dennis O'Sullivan
Sunday 28th September 2014


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