Raising standards or raising fears?

Bill WatkinBill Watkin, Operational Director SSAT, writes…

I was surprised and disappointed by the New Schools Network article today. Surprised because it seems to indicate that the NSN has stepped outside its original remit, which was to support groups looking to set up a Free School as they navigated the processes and technical requirements of the procedure.

Disappointed because it seems to indicate a lack of understanding of how Ofsted operates and how progress and value added work.

The article casts

“doubt over the accuracy of Ofsted judgements, with more than a third of primary schools rated as Good or Outstanding by Ofsted failing to ensure that enough of their students get the basics in reading, writing and adding up.”

It goes on to say that:

“Across the country, 80% of children reach Level 4, but one in three (33.2%) of schools graded as Good or Outstanding is falling short of this average achievement – a total of 3,802 schools. In fact one in ten Outstanding primaries failed to help pupils master the basics.”

In response, a spokesman for Ofsted said: “The New Schools Network’s argument is fatally flawed as it appears to be based on the premise that a school should only be found good if its test results are above average every year.

“Under such a system around half the schools in the country would always be less than good, no matter who is running the schools and however much standards improve.

“It also assumes that Ofsted inspects each school on an annual basis, which we do not. For example, we are prevented by law from routinely inspecting outstanding schools.

“Furthermore, our inspections do not just look at test results and progress levels. Our judgments also take account of the context of the school, and factors such as culture and behaviour, and whether children are safe and benefiting from a broad and balanced curriculum.”

I should make it clear that I am not “anti-Free Schools”. I have seen some excellent examples and some that are less good. And some for which it is too early to tell. Of course.

As with the early sponsored academies, Free Schools are a part of the solution. They are not THE solution. And as with all schools and academies today, there are good ones, bad ones and middling ones.

They [Free Schools] are not THE solution. And as with all schools and academies today, there are good ones, bad ones and middling ones

One interesting experience I bring from my early work with sponsored academies some ten years ago is the need for different kinds of schools to be fully integrated in the wider networks and the system.

The pariah status enjoyed by early academies benefited no-one. It’s the same with Free Schools. They must not sit outside the system but must play their full part in it.

So why would they choose to feed headlines about Outstanding primary schools failing to get enough pupils to reach the required standard?

There are two common reasons for opening a Free School:

Add capacity to a system which is bursting at the seams. There are more children than we can fit in our schools and we need more classrooms. So it makes sense that Free Schools should be one way of addressing the shortfall. Open a Free School in a community that has an identified shortage of places and the problem is at least alleviated if not remedied.

Provide an alternative school for parents who don’t consider the existing provision good enough for their children. What the Secretary of State describes as a good school for every child. This can happen in communities where there is not a shortage of school places; there may even be a surplus. But the local school is not perceived to meet the needs of local parents and an alternative, a Free School, is established – sometimes at considerable cost – and this might create a surplus of school places.

There are potential benefits of course.

The new Free School might be seriously good; it might provide a new approach or meet a particular need in the community; it might force the existing school to raise its game to maintain its pupil roll.

But there are risks too.

Not all Free Schools are excellent; the financial cost is a drain on already-stretched resources; parents may not subscribe in the numbers needed and the new school is not viable; the existing school loses pupil numbers and becomes unviable.

The government is committed to 500 new Free Schools in the term of this parliament. The Free School movement is guaranteed a future, at least for some years to come.

And the position of the New Schools Network, established to support parent-led and other interested parties to set up Free Schools, providing advice and guidance and vetting services, is secure.

So why does the New Schools Network feel it has to publish a spurious report about primary schools, already judged by Ofsted to be Outstanding, failing to teach the three Rs properly?

Is it because they want to foster a sense of anxiety, fear and dissatisfaction among parents who are then enthused to set up a school, a Free School, especially for their children?

Or is it because they have a genuinely altruistic motive, hoping that in pointing out the failings of existing schools and identifying the problem, a solution will be found that will see them all get better?

What is so surprising is that the NSN report seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the nature of Progress and of the Ofsted process.

It is interesting to note that Ofsted gave the report short shrift in its response.

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