Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Making the Grade: The Kent school pupils who are showing the way

Published By: The Independent - 15 Oct 2009

Kent schools are failing, says the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, and he isn’t going to stand for it. Twenty two schools in the county are still not meeting his bottom line of a third of pupils getting five good GCSEs with English and maths, so he is sending in his national advisers to sort them out.

But the move has roused fury among school heads in Kent, who point out that, using the Government’s own statistics, many of these so-called failing schools are in fact doing an above-average job within a school system where a quarter of pupils are creamed off into grammar schools. In addition, they point out, some eastern parts of the county are among the most deprived areas in the country.

Paul Carter, leader of Kent County Council, is definitely “not amused” and has written to the Secretary of State, vigorously pointing out that GCSE results for Kent are above those of comparable areas, and that a pioneering vocational curriculum has led to declining numbers of youngsters in the county who are not in either employment or training.

“Our primary school achievement levels are below average but our results at KS4 are way above, which gives you some crude measure of the value our mixed economy of secondary schools add to their pupils’ progress,” he told The Independent. “There is no community in the county where the results for 16-year-olds, taken together, show less than 40 per cent getting five good GCSEs. The curve of improvement in our schools over the past five years has been astonishing. There are five or six schools I’m still worried about, but we are already intervening and supporting them.”

However Ed Balls is unrepentant. Selection can be no excuse for failure, he says, and points to the spectacular success of one school in east Kent as an example of what is possible.

King Ethelbert has 750 pupils aged 11 to 16, and serves a poor, white, working class area outside Margate on the isolated Isle of Thanet. It has a troubled history and in 2008 just 14 per cent of children got five good GCSEs including English and maths. The school was “named and shamed” as part of the Government’s National Challenge programme, last summer, which targetted poorly-performing schools, and was linked up with a neighbouring Broadstairs grammar school, Dane Court. Paul Luxmoore, head of Dane Court, came in as executive head, with Kate Greig simultaneously appointed as the new head of King Ethelbert.

Then came a whirlwind of activity. Pupils were told their school might be closed unless their results improved, parents were involved, staff were supported, and new teachers were appointed, with the help of additional money channelled into the school through the National Challenge programme. Children’s performance was tracked in minute detail and that data was used to offer carefully-targetted support.

“The help was unconditional for English in my case,” says Keisha Pile-Gray, who got 10 good GCSEs and is now taking A levels in a neighbouring school. “It was ridiculous. Everyone else believed in me apart from me.” Another former Year Eleven pupil complained he could have papered his bedroom with the letters sent home about his course work.

On results day last summer, everyone, including dinner ladies and cleaning staff, held their breath to see if the school had made it.

It had. Thirty four per cent had achieved the necessary five good GCSEs, the school was the second most improved in the country, and improvements are now continuing apace. Already, 27 per cent of Year Eleven students have passed their maths GCSE last year, and many pupils are taking their English GCSE this autumn in a bid to improve results and hit the National Challenge target early and get it out of the way.

But the real success is the way the school has started to create a culture of achievement where pupils feel valued and motivated. “The teachers push us, but in a good way,” says Rachel Buckley, 14. “If you’re stuck they help you by giving you clues but the encourage you to work independently at the same time,” says Paige Seager, 12. Pupils agree their teachers are “brilliant”, there is always someone to talk to about problems, and there are lots clubs and study sessions after school, including the chance for older pupils to work with fellow pupils from their partner grammar school.

“A rising tide carries all ships,” says Paul Luxmoore. “The Year Sevens have higher expectations because of the previous year’s results.”

But if Ed Balls is a fan of King Ethelbert’s, no-one at King Ethelbert’s is a fan of the way he uses arbitrary targets to drive to school improvement or his finger-pointing at Kent schools. “We were horrified by his statement,” says Paul Luxemoore. “It targets schools in a way that is utterly unfair. The reason why Kent has so many National Challenge schools is because this is a selective system. Ed Balls has had that explained to him a thousand times already.” Even when King Ethelbert was getting only 14 per cent of pupils up to the GSCE benchmark, he points out, it was still among the best in the country for adding value to pupils’ performance.

Teachers concede that the National Challenge threat brought everyone together and channelled much-needed extra resources into the school, but say that, despite last year’s spectacular jump in results, real school improvement is a long, committed hard slog that had already started at the school before the national programme was created and will continue after it disappears.

“Everyone at this school has worked their socks off, and done incredibly well,” says Kate Greig. “Kent advisers have been absolutely superb and Kent County Council have supported us is every possible way. What we’ve done here is changed the culture of the school into a positive. But that’s not to do with National Challenge. It’s to do with is creating good teams and then letting them get on and create the opportunities for children to do as well as they can.”

Nationally, the National Challenge programme has been an instant success, with a forty per cent drop in the number of schools not meeting minimum standards in the first year. But educators say that the threatening way it has been implemented, along with the short-term nature of extra money it channels to schools, could mean its effect is only temporary.

“The money is going to disappear just at the same time as general funding for schools takes a downturn because of the recession and this is bound to have an effect on schools, especially those who have taken on extra staff,” points out John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Government sticks and carrots, it seems, might make schools jump in the short term, but in the end you need the long, hard graft of those on the ground to ensure that change is real and lasting.