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We have created a monster...

The excellent Schools Week has published a couple of articles this week which should give everyone pause for thought, but, with reflection, are obvious consequences of our current education system:

Both these issues are more pronounced in mainstream secondary schools.

Our system is driven by pupil progress unadjusted for any form of individual context. The accountability systems are incredibly high stakes for schools, leaders and teachers. So the incentive is to avoid admitting children who will perform less well in public examinations. Students with special educational needs, unsurprisingly, do significantly less well than their peers at GCSE. Likewise the system creates an incentive to move disadvantaged, unfocused or poorly behaving students out of your school, whether by exclusion or managed move. Students who are not focused on their learning, for whatever reason, will do less well. Disadvantaged students, in general, perform less well at GCSE. It is no surprise that the Education Policy Institute research into managed moves found that poorer pupils were more likely to be involved.

There are a whole range of other behaviours that are commonplace in schools which actively harm our most vulnerable children, but which are incentivised by our education system. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • Students with additional needs are permanently excluded from a mainstream secondary school mainly because the school does not make provision for their needs. They go to alternative provision, where their additional needs are supported and they get an EHCP (Education Health and Care Plan). They name another secondary school on their plan and return to mainstream provision, but the original school has avoided making provision for them. At my last school I received 3 students in that way within a 12 month period - highly detrimental to the results of the receiving school and positive for the results of the school who "got rid" of the students in the first place;

  • As parents and carers select a secondary school some schools make sure that they encourage challenging or needy students and families to look elsewhere - "School X is much better able to meet his/her needs", "I am not sure that you will get a place here...", "We have very high standards, I am not sure how well he/she will fit in....", "We wouldn't make any allowances for ....., I am not sure how we will meet his/her needs...", "There is no point starting to plan for his/her transition - they probably won't get a place here - we are very oversubscribed....".

By creating incentives for raw measures of progress, and stigmatising those schools who don't live up to those expectations we have created a monster that actively harms those students for whom we have the greatest duty of care.

We have to rethink how we judge the quality of schools and rebalance it in favour of those who serve the most disadvantaged children and communities - those for whom education can make the biggest difference in their life chances.

As long as we retain the current system where the incentive is to avoid educating those students who most need us, and where the pressure on schools and schools staff are so great, we will continue to feed the monster that we have inadvertently created.

James Harris

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