20 May 2021

Seven practical ways to level up schools

By Tim Clark

‘Levelling up’ is a key priority for the government, and nowhere is it more urgently needed than in education. Trying to raise standards in schools in deprived non-metropolitan areas is long overdue but there is no single, magic bullet solution. That said, there are successful strategies that are proven to work.

Schools such as Mossbourne and Michaela Academies, both of which serve deprived inner-city areas of historic under performance, prove what can be done. Whilst their philosophies may not be to everyone’s taste, their emphasis on strong discipline and high expectations can be applied in any context.

At the moment, over 40% of youngsters fail to get five “good” GCSE passes. Why? Is it bad schools, disaffection, bad teaching, lack of parental support? All of these may play a role but we also have to ask whether the curriculum is appropriate for all. Core subjects (English and maths) are clearly crucial, but this country has not seriously considered vocational courses since the Newsome Report of 1963. We must be careful not to assume that deprived kids need vocational rather than academic courses, but must also accept that a one size fits all curriculum sets some children up to fail. This is not to argue for “prizes for all”, nor is it an attempt at dumbing down – whatever we teach, A Level or BTec, Latin or plumbing, we should teach to the highest standards.

Disaffection and lack of engagement are major inhibitors to pupil progress. If youngsters enjoy and can see a point in school, they will usually have a much more positive attitude. No, that isn’t an argument for lax discipline – actually many children thrive in a structured environment which they often lack at home. It’s a call for an engaging curriculum and extracurricular programme which broadens horizons. In my last school we gave free musical instrument lessons to all pupils in Year 7 whilst all Year 10s did the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award. For many, the expedition and other aspects of the award scheme provided completely new experiences. We also ran the usual extra-curricular activities every night after school and kept the library open so that all pupils, regardless of their home situation, had somewhere quiet, safe and warm to work. We also ran a free breakfast service every morning which was not means tested. About 10% of students attended every day, and others intermittently. It provided a good start to the day and a safe place for youngsters to socialise. Such activities can change the attitude, outlook and attendance of many pupils.

Equally, schools must be better at dealing with pupils’ pastoral needs and mental health. Schools which can provide professional counselling, for example, can do much to engage some of the most hard-to-reach pupils. Obviously, there will always be issues that require external support, but by dealing with some of the more common issues internally, schools can engage many disaffected pupils.

It is very easy to make excuses and to feel sorry for deprived children. ‘Contextual Value Added’ was introduced to the national league tables in 2007, which moderated a school’s GCSE performance according to certain social conditions. In the first year, one school near Manchester came bottom in the area for English and maths scores, but top for CVA. The only problem was that the school’s GCSE results were still appallingly low! While deprived children undoubtedly often need extra support, we should still insist on the highest standards for all. Andrew Adonis’ book, “Education, Education, Education” put it very nicely by stating that we should aim for “comprehensive grammar schools” and not “comprehensive secondary moderns”. The move to comprehensivisation often went hand in hand with lax discipline, low expectations and poor standards of achievement. Just because a school admits pupils of all abilities does not mean it cannot insist on a smart uniform, homework, good manners and striving for excellence.

External inspection is essential for maintaining standards and providing objective assessment of how a school is performing, and just because a school is in a deprived area does not mean the expectations should be any lower. It is, however, essential that we understand the barriers facing many schools. Simply labelling a school as “Requires Improvement” or “Inadequate” is not going to help that school improve – its pupil intake will probably fall and the additional inspection visits will only depress staff morale even further. Could a more supportive approach be adopted? During lockdown and school closure, Ofsted undertook a number of “visits” to have “professional conversations” with school leaders which were, on the whole, welcomed by Heads. Perhaps this more professional dialogue approach could help raise standards more than banging on the chicken shed every four years.

There is a national teacher recruitment problem which could get worse as the large cohort of teachers in their 50’s retires within the next 5-10 years while a large number of new recruits are leaving the profession after only a few years. This will be felt by all schools, but possibly by schools in deprived areas more than others. With over three and half thousand secondary schools to choose from, what will attract the best teachers to our most needy schools? Salary enhancements? Other benefits? Both might help, as would improved schools, but we must always remember that no school can be better than its teachers. It is obviously incumbent upon leadership teams to do all they can to retain good staff – supporting the staff on pupil discipline and doing all they can to reduce bureaucracy and workload: the aim of leadership must always be to allow teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

Schools can have a remarkable impact on a child’s achievement, attitude and ultimate success, but since they only spend 17.5% of the time physically in school, if there is a genuine disconnect with their home life, or worse, a definite opposition to what the school is trying to achieve, then the chances of success are going to be, at the very least, curtailed. Schools must engage parents. Where parents refuse to cooperate, or they blatantly oppose or undermine a school, however, there must be legal powers to enforce discipline, protect pupils and staff, and to ban aggressive parents from the site. Likewise, schools cannot be held accountable for those parents who refuse to engage.

Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that where an area is affected by high employment or few job opportunities, this has a negative impact on pupil attitudes. This is perhaps less important to academically able pupils who might look forward to university and perhaps to moving away from the area, but for others, the absence of the possibility of employment is disheartening. Obviously, schools should aim to broaden horizons and encourage youngsters to look further afield (and here, good careers guidance is essential) but a curriculum which equips less academically able pupils for future worthwhile employment, delivered in a caring and well-disciplined environment, must have its merits.

If levelling up means spreading opportunity to left behind corners of the country, then where better to start than with education? For too long, schools in deprived areas have been subjected to the tyranny of low expectations. By insisting on the highest standards, having engaging extra-curricular activities, improving mental healthcare, insisting on strong discipline, sticking to a rigorous but supportive inspection regime, recruiting the best teachers and engaging constructively with parents, we can change that.

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Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for 18 years. He now runs a consultancy specialising in school improvement.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.