“No-one would have believed, in the first years of the twenty-first century, that educational affairs would be eventually watched from the timeless worlds of Twitter. No-one could have dreamed that schools were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of education being any other way in different schools. And yet, across the gulf of Twitter, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded education with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against them…”
Nothing wrong with a little hyperbole-injection to get the tank purring. Perhaps it’s just end of term fever running amok throughtired bodies and broken minds, but there is a palpable air of anger through the online education world at the moment. If I wanted to take the less positive view, you could say that it is nothing more than an extension of the general outpouring of vitriol and vinegar that passes off for discussion on teh internets, but this pitching of teacher v teacher is something new.
A few years ago during an SLT meeting our then Head brought to our attention the newly minted Ofsted Data Dashboard (now removed from existence). The dashboard showed our science results to be frankly not too good at all. In comparison with other schools we were just not coming up with goods. Myself and one of the Deputy Heads went away to look into what was happening, though the picture became clearer the next day. Ofsted had decided to use as a measure the % of students passing GCSE science, but had at first (it was added soon after) neglected to show how many students were actually entered to begin with. Since this was in the days when it was possible to enter say 10% of students for GCSE science and put them into alternative courses it was possible to crank out close to 100% GCSE pass rates in science, which some schools duly did. I remember the anger and frustration when I worked out what was happening (our school did put some people through alternative courses but by far the majority did GCSE). I also recall thinking that one possible response for us as a school would be to trumpet and market the fact that we didn’t make the kind of use of alternative qualifications (and not just in science) that some schools were using.
This approach did not feel right to me then and it does not feel right now. Like most teachers, I’ve got a reasonable idea of some of the questionable strategies and approaches taken by some schools to boost their schools up the league tables. I also know some of those schools are facing enormous challenges and that they need to take any advantage they can grab in order to just keep in running in the same place like Carroll’s Red Queen. It seems churlish and a little spiteful to try to damage the staff and students of schools that are at the coal-face for the sake of advancing your own situation in a zero-game for pupils.
And yet…the situation in education is very different from even five years ago. Some schools have really bought into the competitive marketplace and promote their school like any other service. Although I’m not comfortable with this approach it’s not going away anytime soon. This is a new world for educators, one were neither used to nor prepared for. When private schools promoted themselves on billboards and the local press it seemed to be a separate world where they would quite understandably be trying to entice customers. Now I see adverts for state schools on the back of buses on my morning drive to work with some, um, selective uses of data to promote those institutions. But can you blame a school for doing this?
And so to the current flavour of the month, The Michaela School. I have visited actually, well, walked past on the way to see a concert at Wembley Arena, but surely that counts. Okay, perhaps not. I don’t in principle object to free schools (there’s your watery statement). Nor can I make much comment about how successful or otherwise free schools are in the absence of any – data. If they work then great; that means students are getting a good education. If however schools are like Homer finding the three-chambered peanut and shouting “Marge. Look what I did!” because of covert selection then that will presumably come out in the wash too. Aggressive marketing makes me uncomfortable at the best of times, but perhaps it is something to get used to now. I’d like to see some pushback against it. Yet I balk though at the Nazi comparisons made by some commentators online to a school system.
If a school system is genuinely making things better for students then great, share it and let’s all learn (which I think TMS are trying to do). I think there are some claims that are made of free schools that definitely need to be challenged, and they are pushing the boundaries of credulity to take the position of plucky outsiders when they are so close to the establishment. Which is where I would be very happy to see the ire and vitriolic passions of teachers more usefully directed.