24 Aug Walking the tightrope.
It’s been a strange and difficult few days. I woke up last Tuesday night at 2am with the worst headache of all time; piercing intense pain. I had to run downstairs for the pain killers. This was stress, pure and simple; subconscious anxiety in anticipation of GCSE results download day. I’ve only been there a year but Results Matter – and in this age of hyper-accountability, they assume meaning far beyond the limits of their validity and reliability as measures of our students’ experience. It wasn’t good news; various factors had lined up to generate results at the lower end of the range I’d expected. The KS2 profile of this cohort generates an expected figure of 39% on the national transition matrices for 5A*-CEM; that’s about where we are – in line with expectations, not even taking account of the 73% FSM factor. Naturally, we’re not allowed to call that success and it doesn’t feel like it!
Still, I know this single data point has significance it doesn’t deserve. We were 45% last year which had come as a shock to the school despite it representing Sig + Value Added on RAISE for that cohort. The new GCSE regime had kicked in and there were no easy wins. Everyone expects and demands improvement so, all year, it has seemed to be more or less forbidden to contemplate openly that our results might go down again. But they have. Every outcome has reasons. They aren’t excuses; they are reasons: Here are some of the ingredients in our outcomes:
- It was our first year without the Speaking and Listening component in English GCSE – so, despite better exam performance, our results dropped significantly (84% to 61%). (It’s remarkable that our 5A*-CEM outcomes were only 45% last year when English secured 84%. They were prepared super well! It’s no surprise to me that this component was withdrawn by Ofqual.)
- We’re one of the schools with masses of students on the C/D borderline in Maths experiencing drops following the grade boundary change on the Edexcel Higher paper. 50 of our students got a D. With outcomes virtually a zero-sum, a gain of 5% in School X must be accompanied by a drop of 5% in School Y. (Strictly speaking, 4.3% on average since Nationally maths went up by 0.7%). It’s a fact of how our system works: not all schools can improve their Maths GCSE grades in the same year. It’s a contest for the allowed number of passes at A*-C; there are winners and losers. There’s some comfort in hearing of lots of other schools in the same boat – but not much!
- Despite real improvements in Science, History, Geography and English Literature and more A/A*s in French, Art and Music, our Maths-English alignment was unhelpful! 13 students with a D in Maths would have also secured 5A*-CEM if they’d gained a C; several of those are just a few marks away. These are the margins.
Of course there were individual successes – students with hatfuls of As and A*’s and lots of other wonderful individual triumphs – as always. But despite matching the average national trend for the cohort, no-one is jumping for joy. The week before, after our very positive A level results, I received lots of emails congratulating staff on their hard work; by comparison there’s been a conspicuous tumbleweed response on GCSEs. As if the staff worked any less hard!? It seems that some of the people who like to bask in the glory and get a piece of it when things are looking good – regardless of their contribution – are quick to distance themselves when things don’t look so rosy! Sadly. Inevitably. It’s painful for some to accept that previous results were not based on a more deeply rooted learning culture; the success was too fragile and the exam regime has exposed that in no uncertain terms.
My job now is to remain positive, to project confidence and have faith that our plans will deliver on results. In my heart, I know that we’re doing the right things:
- We’ve got a raft of strategies to embed a deeper learning culture with less reliance on Y11 intervention.
- We’re transforming standards of behaviour so lesson disruption is absolutely eliminated.
- We addressing curriculum and pedagogy at a deep level with explicit emphasis on knowledge acquisition and retention and students’ capacity to express their ideas
- We’re raising aspirations with more leadership from the Sixth Form and more opportunities to showcase students’ learning publicly
- We’re investing in staff development in a very significant manner and doing all we can to retain our staff so that they have time to grow and gain the experience they need.
- We’ve changed our pastoral leadership structure to strengthen the oversight of students’ academic and personal development
- We offer amazing curriculum breadth and opportunities for personal development and enrichment – not least in music.
– the list goes on! We’re hugely ambitious for what we can do and I know that students of all kinds receive a superb education at my school. When I stand up in front of parents at our Open Evening in September I will be totally sincere when I tell them how exciting it is to be at Highbury Grove and how positive I am about their children’s pathway to success, regardless of their starting point.
However, in terms of exam outcomes, we need to be really clear that there are no easy wins or quick fixes. Not any more, especially for large established comprehensive schools with a culture to shift. (New schools and selective schools have it easy by comparison for sure.) The schools I look to for inspiration are those where their KS3 is the engine room of their success; not their Y11 intervention programme. I know schools where they’ve already created a deep learning culture; where no student would dream of being late to an exam; where the default peer group position is an acceptance of the need to work hard, at home and in class; where the aspirations for success are sky high. But it took them five years. That’s our direction of travel and I know we’re on the right road – parents, students and teachers reaffirm that every week. For sure, our new Y11 is expected to achieve significantly better.
The tricky part is that all this takes time and patience. There’s a real danger that at times of stress, when the public face of success (even if based on single data points) has been dented, that pressure for short-term gain deflects us from the taking the deeper long-term path. I’m not immune to that pressure. In fact, I’ve never felt as much pressure as I feel right now. I’ve asked myself some hard questions – even though it has just been one year! (Can I do this? Is it worth it? Should I be playing the game more? That kind of thing.) I need at least three years to get this right and it already feels like a tightrope of expectations: The rewards of success are huge but if you fall off the wire, it’s a long way down.
I can tell you this: the thing you need the most when the pressure is on, is for people to say that they’re behind you. Conspicuously. Don’t hold back people! With the system going the way it is, we can’t be sure that success will come via improved exam outcomes on the same scale as before. Securing good GCSE grades and adding value are still a zero-sum (and I remain to be convinced that P8 will change that). In that context, saw-tooth fluctuations are to be expected; they are normal – they happen in great schools with great heads and great teachers. We need to develop more sophisticated responses to that and educate ourselves out of our system-wide delusion that everyone can be average or better. It’s not complacent to accept this as the truth; it’s only complacent to stop striving for improvement, and you won’t catch us doing that. Just give us the time and space we need!