The recently published report on St Olave’s Grammar School by Bromley Borough Council provides a damning indictment of the toxic accountability culture that some headteachers have encouraged in their schools. The Daily Telegraph newspaper leads the story with the headline:
Grammar school superhead left students feeling suicidal with policy of exclusion for getting B grades
and continues: A “superhead” of an ultra-selective London grammar school left sixth-formers feeling suicidal and staff feeling bullied with a “constant emphasis” on perfect exam grades, a report has found. The article finishes with “St Olave’s has promised to judge future performance against a broader range of criteria”.
The trouble with the concept of judging performance for 21st century school leaders is that almost all the desirable outcomes required in good schools are immeasurable for the purposes of judging performance; as with all elite performance, you must concentrate your resources on looking after the individuals in the team, treating them as individuals and managing their needs accordingly. The outcomes for students leaving the Sixth Form are going to be very different to the needs the pupils had identified on entry in the school at age 11, and dependent too on the emerging skills and talents the children display as they rise up through the school’s many channels of provision. If a school chooses to measure itself by Russell Group University admissions, then it is then requiring of its Sixth Form leaders and Careers guidance counsellors to put destination more important than career choice. One of our own staff’s son revealed to me the other day (attending Sixth Form elsewhere), “the anger on the face of the Headteacher was all too palpable when they heard I was choosing Oxford Brookes over Russell Group for my chosen degree course”. No wonder such schools are shutting down A level Art, Drama, D&T, Music and Sports as subject choices, because such subjects point at Art School, Drama or Music College or worse still, a career in these and Sport rather than the pursuit of a degree. Unsurprisingly, all the above routes are open in our Sixth Form, and whilst all the above is true, I do actually feel we are serving the individual students best this way as well.
My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in this regards happened as we were making the decision to leave the National Curriculum. Increasingly, we were finding that we could get the best NC outcomes at KS1, 2 and 3 through teaching to the test, but that ‘encouragement to focus on English language, Maths and Science’ was doing nothing for reading, Literature, the wider arts and languages, let alone the practical disciplines, and the effect on children was a narrowing of their ambition and wish to risk choice far too early. By way of example of my own non-national curriculum, I still have exercise books from my years as a pupil here, and from the age of 8 to 13 we read Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to name but 4 of many. All of these made their living be selling their stories to the masses, to entertain the troops so to speak; the inspiration we drew as children from the Knight’s tale, Macbeth, Christmas Carol and the Woman in White led to the creation of tabloid press articles, cartoon storyboards, versions with alternative endings as well of course as derivative versions, and on occasion, wholly new writing and poetry of our own. Undertaking the research last decade on what had been lost during the ‘nationalisation of the core curriculum’ brought some pretty terrifying evidence to the surface; not only had the volume of engaging and inspirational activities been reduced, but too much exploratory work was being replaced with rote learning and worksheet, and for no good purpose.
Teachers wondering where their source material for exploring challenging issues and raising the resilience of the children in their care need look no further than the classics, and most teachers recognise that they include all the same arguments that suffuse parliament, the press and the entertainment media today. We welcome the challenge to ensure that children are engaged by the history and writing of the past and highlight that the issues are all still very much alive and entertain us all. Whilst not a avid viewer of Love Island, I understand Dani and Jack are the bookies’ favourites to win the programme’s £50,000 prize (Monday 30 July); I haven’t missed the supporting story either, that more people applied for Love Island this year than to enter Oxbridge, nor that Love Island Competitors can expect to have higher life term earnings as well than Oxbridge graduates.
Whether D&Js story will be as sad or compelling as Romeo and Juliet only time will tell. I am not suggesting that schools should focus their charges on careers requiring such vanity and plastic surgery of course. What I am recommending is that schools should set out to educate as much of each child as they can, collaborate as much as possible on a whole host of common enterprises and cause the children to ‘sweat hard on the good stuff’. Testing is of course one of the requirements to build up the perspiration but only that, and not too much of it early on – all the other components need to be in place as well.