Am I an Enemy of Promise?

After 24 years of watching other people’s children pick up their GCSE results, it is my turn to be the anxious parent. I will go into work today to see how the students at my school have done, then I will go with my daughter tomorrow to see how that unfolds. Double whammy.

It is strange to think that the head teacher at my daughter’s school will know her results before I do. I’m pretty sure he’ll pick out my daughter’s name as he scans the list of results and take a look to see how well she’s done – it is a great feeling to see the accomplishments of students that you have known for five years, particularly those who have worked hard for this moment, or those who have had adversity along the way.

Who are the stakes highest for in this game? I can’t help thinking that it isn’t my daughter. She wants to stay on to do A Levels next year, so she needs to achieve certain grades – that is the hurdle to jump. She also would like to attend some sort of reputable university in two year’s time, so a decent set of GCSE grades wouldn’t go amiss. However, she doesn’t plan to become a vet, lawyer or doctor – her career choices don’t rely on being the best of the best. If her results come in anywhere near expected then no plans will need to change. She’s worked hard and mitigated any risk of disaster.

I appreciate that others are in a less secure position. Some students will be on the borderline of getting the results they need. Others will be struggling with learning difficulties, personal problems or disadvantage. For some students, tomorrow will feel very high-stakes. However, I maintain that what the vast majority of students need is a respectable cluster of results – very few really need to blow it out of the water.

For my daughter’s school, the stakes are high. Having done well in SATS, there is a pretty ominous list of ‘estimated grades’ attached to my daughter’s name. These (I’m guessing the ‘top quartile’ grade for her attainment profile – for those into this stuff) have been communicated to her as ‘target grades’, and she has been compared against these in every set of reports over the last two years. This has added some unnecessary pressure, despite me and her mum telling her many times that these targets are a nonsense to be ignored – that they matter to the school, but are not relevant to her as an individual. She’s a bright girl and gets how the world works (particularly as both her parents are teachers and have the inside track on this stuff).

But, the thing is, these grades matter very much to the school. If the data suggests that my daughter needs a grade 7 to fall in the middle of some statistical distribution, or a grade 8 to be in the top quartile of ‘similar students’, this is what the school will be desperately hoping she gets. If she achieves a grade 5/6, she’ll be happy, I’ll be happy – but the school will take a value-added blow. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the school is not, first and foremost, interested in her success as an individual – I’ve always had the impression that they genuinely want the best for her personally. But the system is set up so that it is important to them how my daughter’s results compare to a statistical profile.

Schools find themselves in the same position as students. Some are in a secure position, knowing that they have worked hard and any slight swing in outcome will have little consequence. For others, every value-added point will matter. These are the schools on a threshold: hoping to achieve a better Ofsted rating; needing to attract more students; fighting off being forced into a multi-academy trust with a formidable reputation. It is not surprising that some schools find their priorities corrupted – the statistical outcome becoming more dominant in their minds than the individual success of students.

Look carefully at the public statements of schools over the coming days. Are they celebrating the success of the students and crediting them for their hard work, or do they self-congratulate (our ‘best results ever’)? Sadly, it is not just the schools under pressure that have fallen into this trap – the high-stakes results culture has become the norm.

For my own school, the stakes are relatively low (although we have a dodgy Ofsted label hanging around our necks). I won’t pretend that I don’t hope for our ‘best results ever’ – it would just make life a little easier, and be a signal that all the work we have put in to improving the school is paying off. However, I’ll be really happy if my school (like my daughter) gets a ‘respectable’ set of results. Does this make me an ‘enemy of promise’ (Gove’s charming phrase)? Am I complacent? There are those who would say so. I could become one of those headteachers who relentlessly drives results, accepts ‘no excuses’, and pulls out all the stops. But I can’t help thinking about what I would lose in the process. I fear that I might become the sort of leader who looks at the school’s overall results first, and forgets to look down the list for how well each student has done.

My main measure of success tomorrow will be how each student responds to the results they receive – frankly, if they are happy then I am. I’ll worry about the value added score later. That is my problem, not theirs.


UPDATE: She’s happy; we’re happy; lots of happy faces at my school this morning. It wasn’t our ‘best results ever’ – whatever that means – but it was the best results they’ll ever get.

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