Context is king

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Over the weekend Nicky Morgan made comments on how she proposes to deal with ‘coasting’ schools. She confirms that she means those that ‘just’ get enough to be RI or those where ‘every child doesn’t make progress’.  Whilst we could argue about the semantics of ‘coasting’ I fully agree that schools that seem to consistently be 3/4 need to be sorted.

However, throughout this all there is an implication that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will work. This is where there will be problems.

The schools that Nicky is referring to have huge challenges;not just getting better results. We’re not talking about the Outstanding school that drops to Inadequate overnight due to their lack of British values. We’re talking about schools that are usually in socially deprived areas or unique social situations. Recruitment of teachers is hugely problematic ( more than other schools) and the poor reputation of the school usually comes before any of the good.

But these contexts are not new. They’ve been this way for years and years. One of them used to be on the largest council estate in Europe. The crime rates and deprivation are nothing new. Some are in areas where they are guaranteed work in local industries regardless of grades. Some have low aspirations.

The problem is that these are rarely taken into account. I don’t mean make excuses. I mean take into account the context of the school and then deal with it head on. Telling these schools you will become an Academy means nothing unless the people that ‘take over’ understand and can deal with the intricacies of the context. One academy chain that seems to be working well in one area of the country may have absolutely no idea how to deal with this next school. And we’ve seen this happen locally. Some are now into their second sponsor. The first having no idea how to deal with the social issues the schools presented. Coming along with great pedagogical ideas and visions that just don’t work in this context.

I’m passionate about this. I’ve worked in these schools. I’ve seen students achieve great things in some subjects but not in others. They’re not impossible to teach. They need the right teaching for the right context. We need teachers and leaders that know how to get the best from these students. Not leaders who once got a job there 10/20 years ago and are sitting pretty, doing very little on 60K and retiring on it. Or a leader from the other side of the country who’s only worked in a completely different context.

So when Nicky sends these new Headteachers and NLEs in to rescue these failing schools what are the chances they will have experienced these contexts before? NLEs have to be from good/outstanding schools (or those from a category up to these). How many Headteachers does this actually apply to? And are they the ones willing to move to help out another school? With great respect to Headteachers that have always lead Outstanding schools I’m almost certain there’s only a handful of these that would know how to deal with these school contexts. Skills transfer but context doesn’t.

I’m sick of seeing the same local schools bounce between 3 and 4. Even worse when the Secretary of State for Education comes to praise it one minute and the next it goes into special measures. Let’s get real here. These schools need targeted, specialised help, in some cases some of the current staff may be able to do this with leaders who know what they’re dealing with. In others, most of the leadership needs replacing.

I can’t stand any more local headlines where new Heads say they are ‘turning around’ the school or ‘vow to make it outstanding’. Let’s get on with the real job; recognising the context & putting together a strong team to manage it.

Either way a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. Becoming an academy doesn’t work. They already are.

Context is king.

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