All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.

3.5 Educational arguments which irritate me.

1. The phonic check, we’re told, ensures we spot the 20% of society who are functionally illiterate.

Yet one of the arguments against it says children who can already read make the nonsense words into real ones. Or, like Lucy Powell MP’s daughter, who can read really well, still failed the check. I’m told these children (despite any research I’ve read showing if children can read at 5 their literacy and academic achievement is likely to be excellent) have hidden phonic difficulties and will need to know the alphabetic code because there might be a really, really, really long word they can’t decode one day. Knowing the phonemes in the year 1 phonic check will stop this problem that isn’t actually a problem. If it is a problem, these students who can read but fail the phonics check are definitely not going to be in the 20% this check is designed to identify. Indeed they’ll be the students who can read and spell whatever method is used.

2. Those who criticise most vociferously OFSTED and its grading system because it criticises how teachers teach, seem to be the most critical of how teachers teach if it isn’t the way they want teachers to teach.

3. The ‘every second counts’ clan spend much energy telling us how students must be on task all the time and we can’t waste a second making puppets or posters; we will let the children down and they will be doomed for all eternity. Teachers who do group work are wasting children’s time which is precious, precious, precious. 

Mention private schools however and they’re all – marvellous, marvellous, marvellous. But private schools have longer holidays and sporting trips and drama activities which take time out of the curriculum. It’s not a problem to miss an afternoon’s school for a rugby match but I’m not allowed to make a puppet in a state school English lesson.

3.5 Similarly this ‘every second counts’ doesn’t seem to include the children who are excluded – they can be off as long as they like because they’re ruining the education for others. It’s also likely this cohort fall into the 20% functionally illiterate category but let’s not worry about that; someone else should be sorting that out.