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If your knees aren’t dirty you haven’t been working hard enough

When I was in junior school I used to play for the football team. Our Headteacher, Mr Jeffrey, was our coach and he’d learned his trade the old school way. Mr Jeffrey was always keen to impress upon us his one rule – if you turned up at half time without mud on your knees you hadn’t been working hard enough. The score seemed to be of secondary importance. Maybe it wasn’t to him, but the message about the cleanliness or otherwise of my knees stuck with me.

It was a thought never far from my mind as the first half went on and resulted in me once sliding for a ball that had long since left the field of play in order to pass Mr Jeffrey’s ‘dirty knees’ test. For him, this was the ‘key performance indicator’ by which to measure me as a player so it influenced my behaviour to ensure that I escaped the public censure that would surely follow if I ever showed up for my half-time oranges with clean knees.

And so it is with school leaders now.

We operate within a culture of ‘performativity’ where the end-point narrative rules. If the accountability framework demands muddy knees (or certain test scores or British Values, for pity’s sake) then my colleagues and I are going to ensure our knees are caked in the thickest, gloopiest mud we can find. This wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the fact that the decisions we as Headteachers make as a result can directly affect children in a negative way.

In my position as a special school head I know the following statement to be true:

Some children are riskier to have on the roll of a school than others.

For example, the student who ended up on a part-time timetable after just three weeks of Year 7 before coming to us. ‘He cannot keep up at the pace we teach’, said the school. ‘They are petrified of losing their Teaching School status’ said the LA officer with a great deal more honesty.

Some children are definitely riskier to have on the roll of a school than others.

There are two groups in particular who present such a ‘risk’ to schools chasing their place in the league tables and status stakes and school leaders (understandably maybe) scared for their jobs:

– Children with special educational needs and children who live in poverty.

What’s more, to compound the situation, it is clear these two groups are inextricably linked. Children who live in poverty are far more likely to also have special educational needs. (See my book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’ for more on this topic.)

How the hell did we end up in a situation like this? What does it say about us as a society that we’ve allowed a system to develop where a child can be deemed a risk to the so-called success of the school? What does it say about us as professionals that we play along with these new ‘rules’?

Timo Hannay, Founder of School Dash, has produced a compelling analysis of ‘how different types of schools either enable or hinder opportunities for those from poorer families’. The conclusions are clear:

• A family living next to a school rated ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted is over 60% more likely to be poor than one living next to an ‘Outstanding’ school.

• Just as importantly, this well-known ‘house price’ effect is far from the only factor keeping poorer children out of good schools. Even those poorer children who do live close to a high-performing school are less likely to end up going there. Indeed, the data suggest that school selection is an even bigger driver of social sorting than the locations of family homes.

School types in which poorer pupils are under-represented after taking into account the level of poverty in their local areas include:

Grammar schools and single-sex secondary schools.

Certain faith schools, particularly non-Christian faith schools and Roman Catholic schools.

Schools rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Secondary converter academies and primary free schools.

And so it follows that the demographic profile of your school has a direct influence on how likely your school is to be deemed good or better.

Any policy maker who is serious about equity would level the playing field without delay (and by level the playing field, I don’t mean re-introduce grammar schools). There are a number of things that should be done to make this happen. Removing admissions from schools and replacing them with a form of admissions lottery is the obvious one, although this has some undesirable side-effects. Another is to compel schools to publish the following key information annually:

– Turnover of students (i.e. the proportion of students who joined the school at the beginning of Year 7 and who are still there at the end of Year 11)

– The proportion of the students in that turnover who have an EHCP or are SEN Support

– The number of students on part-time timetables and, of those, how many have an EHCP or are SEN Support;

– The percentage of children who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) compared to the school’s local community.

There may well be perfectly valid reasons for all of the above, but schools should be able to provide this information in the interests of transparency and be confident in explaining the reasons behind the information with integrity.

And this confidence will only happen when perverse performance incentives are removed from the accountability framework. After all, it is the overall game that is important, not how dirty you make your knees by half time. [ITL]

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