Magazine article Public Finance

Failsafe Futures

Magazine article Public Finance

Failsafe Futures

Article excerpt

A decade ago, two secondary schools symbolised failures in state education. The Ridings in Halifax, Yorkshire, and Hackney Downs in east London were at the centre of media storms in the run-up to the 1997 election. Both had received appalling Ofsted reports and been dubbed 'the worst school in Britain. At The Ridings, images of out-of-control teenagers led the television news bulletins.

The differing fortunes of the two illustrate the challenges in turning around failing schools - and how some can succeed. The Ridings initially started to recover under new management, though with the same pupils and under local authority control. But in the past two years, it has suffered from a poor Ofsted report, parental dissatisfaction - the school is only half full - and poor GCSE results. Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council finally gave up and last October announced that the school would be closed by the summer of 2009. It is likely to be replaced by an academy.

By contrast, Hackney Downs was closed down in late 1995 on the recommendation of a government hit squad. In 2004, it was replaced by Mossbourne Academy, which is now rated outstanding' by Ofsted. Mossbourne has already achieved some of the country's best test results at age 14 on a contextualised valueadded' basis (which takes the backgrounds and needs of the pupil intake into account). Some 37% of students receive free school meals, more than twice the national average, but it is hugely oversubscribed.

When these two schools were making headlines, Labour and the Conservatives were arguing over which party could best tackle failing schools. That war has now resumed.

'We have put in place now a systematic plan of ever tougher measures to eradicate failure,' Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared last October. He announced a new target. By 2012, the number of schools with fewer than 30% of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, should be cut from 638 to zero.

Not to be outdone, the Conservatives have also made tackling failure the centrepiece of their schools policy, hoping voters will believe that there has been little progress under Labour. 'When we judge our performance against the reality of what other nations are achieving, we're falling behind,' shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said in a speech last month.

Gove says more than 350,000 young people every year still fail to get five good GCSEs, including maths and English. And he notes that only 29% of pupils reach this standard in the most deprived areas in the country.

But Schools Secretary Ed Balls counters that the number of schools below the government's 30% threshold fell from 1,610 (out of around 3,200 secondary schools) in 1997 to 638 in 2007.

In reality, there are fewer failing schools today: Ofsted records a halving of schools in special measures since 1998. Nor are the schools static; most recover or close within two years. And, overall, the proportion gaining five good GCSEs has risen from 45% to 62% since 1997, or from 35% to 47% including English and maths.

In the same period, the gap between poorer and better-off pupils has narrowed - but is still significant. Both parties also recognise that too many schools still achieve poor results. This is why the government is raising the bar on what constitutes failure: after all, half of all state schools would have missed the latest target ten years ago.

But school leaders are sceptical. 'There are not 638 failing schools,' says John Dunford, the leader of the Association of School and College Leaders. 'There are 638 schools below the government's ever-increasing floor target.'

Dunford points out that when the government's contextualised value-added measure is used, 250 of the 638 schools are performing above average. 'The pupils in those schools are already doing better than expected, given their specific needs and backgrounds,' he says.

Moreover, many targeted schools are not defined as failing by Ofsted. …

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