Failing schools and failing solutions

The Guardian, July 11 2000

In the bizarre world of Britain’s target-driven schools, it is not only teachers who have joined children in cheating to get good results. The Department for Education are in there, too.

We decided to test the DFEE’s claims to be ‘turning around’ failing schools, by analysing the academic results of every secondary school which has ever been put into ‘special measures’, the programme of intensive reform and inspection which, according to the repeated claims of the Education Secretary, sets schools ‘back on the path to success’. “We are turning them around more quickly than ever,” he declared last year.

In the latest available list, there are 166 secondary schools who have gone into special measures. The first point is that seventy per cent of them are either still in (87, including one that has been there for six years) or they have closed (29, including nine that have been re-opened as Fresh Start schools, which we examine later). Setting aside one school which has been merged, we looked at the remaining fifty for the signs of success which are celebrated by the Secretary of State.

We found that in the year before they went into special measures, on average only 13.24% of their pupils were scoring at least five A to C grades at GCSE, the government’s chosen measure of academic success. This was seriously low. Mr Blunkett announced in March that in future he would consider closing any school which failed to deliver at least 15% A to C grades. Then we looked at the average achievement of pupils in each of the schools for every year since it went into special measures and found out that Mr Blunkett was in some difficulty. On average, in these schools which are “back on the path to success”, there have been only 13.66% of pupils scoring five A to C grades – well below Mr Blunkett’s threshold for survival.

This tiny overall improvement has been secured at an estimated average cost of £500,000 per school, a total bill of £25 million. And it has taken place against a background of intense stress for teachers and heads, some of whom have lost their jobs in the process; and tumbling morale not only amongst staff but also among parents, some of whom have reacted to the imposition of ‘special measures’ by withdrawing their children.

Of course, our averages refer to schools of different sizes and they conceal wide variations. Among the fifty, there are some who have moved upwards sharply: St Mary and St Joseph’s in Bexley was scoring 35% A to Cs and now scores 45%; Hayes Manor in Hillingdon was scoring 18% and now scores 27%; Fairham in Nottingham has moved from 17% to 25%. Almost all of the fifty schools now have fewer students who fail to pass a single GCSE at any level (only six have deteriorated in this respect). Clearly, there is some genuine improvement.

However, the signs of continuing failure are striking. On Mr Blunkett’s own 15% benchmark, twenty one of these success stories are liable to be closed down: fourteen of them are not even scoring 10% (one school scores only 2%, two others score 4%). Nearly a third of them have actually declined: sixteen are turning in results for A to C grades which are worse than they were before they went in to special measures. (This includes the troubled Ridings School in Yorkshire, which went in with 8% and came out with only 6%). Four others have delivered a net improvement of only one per cent over five years.

We also looked to see if there was a trend for results to improve over time. We found that after twelve months in special measures, the schools showed a small average improvement in the number of children scoring five A to Cs. But after two years, there was a small drop, followed by a two-year plateau and then a marked fall for those who had been in special measures for more than five years.

The signs of failure touch even the most renowned success story. Northicote School in Wolverhampton was the first secondary school ever put into special measures, in November 1993, and when it emerged two years later, it was greeted with a chorus of official acclaim. Its headteacher, Geoff Hampton, was given a knighthood for his success. He became a national consultant on techniques for ‘turning around’ failing schools and was subsequently invited to Downing Street to tell the Prime Minister about his methods.

Last year, a team of Ofsted inspectors returned to the school and, although they found strengths – “GCSE results rising much faster than the national average… majority of students making good progress… good links with the community… financial planning is very good” – they also found just as many weaknesses. They reported: “Not enough teaching that is good or very good… monitoring of teaching is unsatisfactory… students’ personal development is unsatisfactory… quality of sixth-form provision is poor… school does not meet all statutory requirements… level of students’ attendance is below the national average.”

The underlying point here is the one that has been made repeatedly to Mr Blunkett – that schools can be improved by shaking up teaching and management, but this improvement is limited by the school’s resources and by its intake of children. In the case of Northicote, where the percentage of students scoring five A to C grades has reached 20%, there has been a clear change in intake. In 1995, Ofsted found that a massive 70% of the pupils had special educational needs. Last year, they found only 33% had. The number of children whose families were poor enough to claim free school meals had also declined, from 33% when the school went into special measures; to 30% when it emerged in 1995; to 26% now.

Phoenix School in Hammersmith has done everything which Mr Blunkett could ask to improve its teaching and management. Last year, Ofsted reported that five years after the school went into special measures, the leadership of its headteacher was ‘excellent’, the governing body’s link with the school was ‘first rate’, the LEA’s help was ‘effective and enduring’, and teaching had improved to the point where 60% of the lessons were either good, very good or excellent. And yet despite all this, the number of children at the school who scored five A to C grades at GCSE last year was only five per cent. In the year before the school went into special measures, it was more than three times higher, at 17%.

Mr Blunkett may not understand the reasons for this fall, but anyone at Phoenix School can tell him that the school was damaged directly by being put into special measures in early 1994. This triggered a rash of vitriolic publicity which, in turn, created an immediate flight of teachers and of parents of motivated children. This left classes to be taught by supply teachers; it also took high-achieving children directly out of GCSE groups and drained many of the most able children from the new intake in September. The school’s results immediately started to slide, from 17% to 11% in 1994 and then 5% in 1995. As the improvements in management took hold, they rose again, to 16% in 1997 only to be slammed downwards again when the intake of eleven-year-olds which had been most weakened by the bad publicity reached Year Eleven in 1999 and sat their GCSEs, with only 5% of them scoring five A to Cs. In other ways, the school can show real improvement: more children attend, fewer are excluded, they behave better; Ofsted said their moral and cultural development was very good. But special measures has not delivered the academic results which are claimed for it. In truth, in some respects, it has damaged them.

Earlier this year Mr Blunkett tried to justify his sidelining of the impact of a poor intake on school performance by citing a school which turns in less than 25% A to C grades but where only six per cent of the children are poor enough to claim free meals. What he chose not to tell his audience was first, that this is a secondary modern school surrounded by three grammar schools which systematically skim off the brightest children in the community; and, secondly, that the school, in Lincolnshire, has been forced to adopt a new system for registering free school meals. Children can now claim them only if their parents physically attend school to confirm that they qualify: the headteacher says that, without this new system, they would have some 20% of children on free meals.

For those schools which fare particularly badly in special measures, Mr Blunkett has created the Fresh Start programme, in which the school is closed and its entire staff are sacked before it is re-opened with a new name, a new head and a new staff, which may include some hand picked from the old school. In March, he declared that “our Fresh Start policy is already being used by LEAs to tackle failing schools and is beginning to have an impact.” A month later, he referred to the scheme again as an example of ‘rapid progress’ in tackling failure and added: “A successful example of this is Firfield School in Newcastle.”

Since then, Firfield has been caught out by Channel Four News trying to get rid of difficult pupils by persuading parents to claim they were going to educate them at home; its ‘superhead’ has resigned; and this year, with 120 vacancies for Year Seven students, it has been chosen as first choice by only 60. Our understanding is that the LEA are now planning to take this ‘successful example’ and close it down for good.

Most of the nine other Fresh Starts have also run into trouble. In Wolverhampton, the new head of Kings School, Tim Gallagher, recently told the Times Educational Supplement that he had been given no warning of the Fresh Start decision (“We were told we would be part of the Fresh Start initiative. We thought ‘What’s that?'”). They had been given no extra funds (a common complaint in the Fresh Start schools) and he complained that essential building works were being stalled by Whitehall bureaucracy: “In effect, we were given a millstone when we started, not a fresh start.”

In Hull, Kingswood has seen 23 of its 50 teachers, including four heads of department, hand in their notice since the school went into Fresh Start last September. Riverdeen in Nottingham are expecting only half of their Year Seven places to be filled in September. Bishopsford in Merton has recruited only 60% of the new pupils it hoped for.

In Brighton, the new College of Media Arts similarly lost 18 of its 58 staff within two terms of its Fresh Start, before also losing its headteacher, Tony Garwood, and its chair of governors. When they tried to find a new head, five of their six short-listed candidates pulled out of recent interviews, and the only remaining applicant was considered unsuitable. Earlier this month, they finally found a new head from the private sector, but she cannot start until next Easter. The school has been dogged by debt, computer foul-ups, friction with the LEA, truancy and indiscipline. For September it has filled only 58% of its vacancies. Now it has been put back into special measures. One senior figure at the school told us: “The requirement was for a radically new way of doing things. Unless we were going to change the children as well, that approach was a mistake.”

The much-celebrated Fresh Start at the Islington Arts and Media School has also crashed in flames. For two months after the school opened, there was only one phone line in the whole place, no hot water, no kitchen, no fire alarm (they used a fog horn for fire drills), no science labs (the builders had gutted them by mistake) and no locks on the doors. When the locks finally arrived, they were the wrong ones; when the right ones finally turned up, they were wrongly installed. The electronic registration system did not work, because there were not enough cables. All this reflected a state of stunning chaos in the LEA which had no idea how many children would come to the school, no idea what the school budget would be, no extra Fresh Start funds because they failed to apply for them, and no New Deal money because they applied and were turned down.

When the head teacher’s guesstimate of the number of pupils turned out to be too low, the LEA provided no extra money for the extra pupils and the classrooms which had been planned for 22, were suddenly filled with 30 pupils. At the beginning, there were so few classrooms that pupils had to come to school in shifts. Most of the toilets did not work. There was a surge in bullying, but when the head tried to exclude pupils, he was blocked by the new policy of ‘inclusivity’. When two girls started fighting in the playground over a bag of chips, it turned into a running battle involving 40 students. A new ‘privatised’ LEA took over, at which point the school discovered that the few decisions which it had managed to wring out of the old LEA were all null and void because none of them had been minuted. The new head resigned and, like Brighton, the school is now being put back into special measures.

None of this failure should surprise Mr Blunkett. The Fresh Start scheme is based on the idea of ‘reconstitution’ developed in San Francisco in 1984. It spread to other cities, but by 1997 it was thoroughly discredited. In December of that year, the American Federation of Teachers, AFT, described the initiative as ‘politically popular but educationally bankrupt’. That was when Mr Blunkett grasped the idea – just as it was being abandoned not only by its pioneers in San Francisco but also by other converts in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Memphis and Minneapolis, all of whom agreed with the AFT that it would be better to try a more collaborative approach, in which teachers and officials worked together to draw up action plans for struggling schools and offered teachers the chance to stay on or to leave.

Even Gary Orfield, who chaired the committee of experts which launched the San Francisco experiment, now recognises the limits of reconstitution. He told us: “My basic conclusion is that this is like open heart surgery. It is necessary in some cases, but very costly and needs a very strong supporting team to give it a reasonable chance at success. It produces strong resistance and anger from faculties when it is done in the wrong way, and it cannot produce miracles. It should not be done on a massive basis because it requires a great deal of investment in leadership in creating a brand new school in a situation which is inherently difficult.”

Furthermore, Mr Blunkett has been warned repeatedly that his whole approach to school improvement is flawed. The same experts who pioneered the techniques which he is using, have urged him to recognise that their benefits are “‘aluable but limited’. The improvement which has occurred is precisely within the narrow range predicted by these experts, and yet he continues to try to use their methods to deliver far more.

A senior Ofsted inspector told us: “A poor school is fantastically hard to turn around. The DFEE deems schools to have been turned around by concentrating on criticising teachers and managers and watching for signs of change in behaviour, particularly truanting. But in order to do so, it has to turn a blind eye to its own professed target, an increase in academic standards. So a school is turned around if its behaviour improves, even though its education may remain quite unchanged. In order seriously to turn that school around, they would have to look at its curriculum, exams, teaching technique and they would have to look at the fundamentals but they absolutely refuse to do that.”

Mr Blunkett is thrashing the wrong horse. There is widespread agreement now that, in the 1980s, the Tory government were right to complain that schools were suffering from some bad teaching and idle management. It set up some of the most powerful systems that have ever been brought to bear on a public service and, with a few exceptions, they have purged the problem. Now almost everyone at every level of education knows that the DFEE need to switch their attention to other causes of failure, some of them structural, some of them in specific policy, most of them the direct product of DFEE decisions. And yet Mr Blunkett is still thrashing the horse in the stable instead of the one with the cart, still smiling and claiming to be pleased at the progress of his journey.

Additional research by Helene Mulholland