*not necessarily in that order
Talk on Twitter tonight is of the newly-released Ofsted report which indicates that Greenwich Free School requires improvement. I don’t know the school at all, and don’t, therefore, intend to argue the rights and wrongs of the situation. Nevertheless, a few things spring to mind.
1. Free Schools have a tough audience
This is not their fault. Unfortunately, the way in which the Secretary of State for Education and his colleagues spoke about Free Schools before they were even up-and-running implied that they would, by the very virtue of their existence, be better than “ordinary” schools, raising standards all round and suchlike. Unfortunately, this inevitably upset and alienated may in the state sector who interpreted as a denigration of the work they did.
Reality has, rather unsurprisingly, indicated that free schools are – like all schools – liable to come in all forms and have all manner of amounts of success. The unfortunate consequence of the government’s claims for its schools is that any indication of this normality is ceased upon by opponents. It isn’t fair, but I’m afraid the blame lies squarely in the government’s court on this one. They started it.
Some of the ‘gloating’ that has been described on Twitter is a shame, but it is also wholly predictable. Many of those people will only see their shouts in the calling out the Emperor as he stands in his “new clothes”.
2. Internal data is always tricky
Many of those who support the work of the GFS are keen to point out the challenges presented by having only two year groups in school, and a lack, therefore, of any external data. I’m afraid my sympathy here is limited. I am a middle-school teacher by training (and heart), and so have only ever worked in schools where internal data has been key in determining progress and outcomes, and where Ofsted judgements could depend heavily on an inspector’s interpretation (or even notice taken) of that data.
There are middle schools in the country which are judged on data from KS2 tests after they’ve had their children for just over 2 terms. Everything for their remaining 6-10 terms is necessarily internal. It means middle school leaders have to work hard to ensure that their data is reliable. It means the National Middle Schools’ Forum has had to collate its own data to support schools about outcomes. It means that as a leader I scour all manner of sources to desperately try to find data against which we could reliably compare our school. It means I sought out supporting evidence from partner schools about moderation and other work we’d done to demonstrate the robustness of our internal systems when Ofsted came to call.
So it’s quite possible that GFS were caused unreasonable damage because of the lack of national systems to account for schools that only go up to Y8. But it certainly isn’t the first: every middle school in the land faces that battle.
3. Year 7 (and 8) data is tricky too (with or without levels)
One of the documents I picked apart as a middle school middle-leader was the thrillingly-entitled DfE Research Report “How do pupils
progress during Key Stages 2 and 3?” (DFE-RR096 if you’re interested). When final outcomes for a school are your Y7 pupils, then national comparisons are hard. There is lots of evidence about a ‘Year 7 dip’, but much less detail about how it plays out in schools and classrooms. But those comparisons were vital for us. It was essential that I knew that progress is significantly more ‘dippy’ in Reading than Writing or Maths. I had to scan every table and chart trying to interpret data in ways that were meaningful for comparison within just KS3. I also spent a great deal of time looking at assessment structures, discussing with other schools and finding out as much as I could about the progress children make in reality during Year 7, as opposed to the straight-line imagined from KS2 to KS4.
Whether GFS had used National Curriculum levels or not, the challenge for any school using non-standard outcome points (i.e. not KS1, KS2 or KS4) is to be able to know the story of your students *and* to know the comparison with others nationally. It’s much harder than the (relatively) simple task of comparing national results, but it is not less important. Perhaps it is even more so?
4. Playing the long game can backfire short-term (Be warned about PRP!)
Perhaps it’s inevitable that a new school looks to build itself over the longer term. Perhaps at the start of the GFS the focus was so much on setting the groundwork for outstanding learning and progress over the five-year period up to GCSE and beyond, that some short-term actions didn’t necessarily lead to short-term gains. There are plenty of examples of things teachers and schools can do to boost their results in the short-term, that don’t necessarily pay off over a period. Equally, there are good actions that could be taken for which rewards might not be reaped for some years. Maybe when their first cohort reaches GCSE, the evidence will show that the judgements made were right, and Ofsted’s interpretation was wrong. Perhaps that should be a warning to all of us of the risks of performance-related pay amongst other things?
5. Some things are universal
Greenwich will not be the only school to have had progress of particular groups highlighted as an issue. In this case it seems both internal data and the Ofsted judgement identify weaknesses in progress for various groups. The most recent frameworks have been very hot on this, and all schools – no matter how small their cohorts – face the same challenges. It doesn’t make this judgement any more or less fair than any other. It’s just the nature of the beast at the moment and isn’t unique to (or absent from) free schools.
6. Parental support counts for a lot
This is generally true in any case, but perhaps particularly when Ofsted come calling. If the parents are supportive of the direction of the school, then an RI judgement will be far less problematic than otherwise. Many of those parents will consider that Ofsted has its own failings and will continue to work with the school. If parents feel that Ofsted has confirmed their fears about a school and its leaders failing, then you’ve really got your work cut out.
7. All in all, a school’s a school
This is just a personal opinion, but no label, no status, no structure, no leader even, is enough on its own to create an exceptional school. And it’s even harder to do so overnight. Time will tell, but it’s quite clear that free schools are not some panacea to the problems of state education. They’re just schools.