League Tables Part 1: Cat & Mouse

League tables divide opinion. For some they support our core purpose of securing the best outcomes for our pupils, providing in the process the transparency, accountability and feedback that all organisations need to sustain improvement – sunlight is the best disinfectant, and all that. But for their critics, league tables say little about what really matters in schools; not only do they fail to capture the complexity of life in our classrooms, they distort our behaviour and encourage teachers and leaders to make decisions based on what looks best in league tables rather than what’s best for our pupils.

Over the following posts I want to see how league tables have evolved since they were introduced in 1992, before taking a detailed look at Progress 8, which has become the headline figure for secondary schools. We’ll finish by suggesting how schools might respond to the ongoing flux of league tables.

League tables have long been one of two ‘eyes’ of accountability, with the other being Ofsted. With signs that Ofsted want to focus more on the inputs of education than the outputs, it’s all the more important that the gaze of league tables is fixed on the things that matter.

First, a quick point on language. ‘League tables’ is a bit of a misnomer. What we’re really referring to is the DfE’s Compare School Performance service which provides open access to a wide range of measures from any state school in the country. When we search for a particular school we see key measures (see example of Paddington Academy below) and then more specific measures for that school, and we can compare a group of schools, or all schools, by any measure we want.

League Table

Part 1: Cat and Mouse

Given that league tables were introduced to provide transparency and to invite public scrutiny, it’s fitting that all league tables published since their inception in 1992 are available online. Naturally I started my search at the school I attended – Cantell School in Southampton – where in 1992, the year before I joined, 32% of pupils gained 5 A*-C grades in their GCSEs (not necessarily including English and Maths). The national average that year was 38.3, and once again this was 5 A*-C grades in any subject – it wasn’t until 2006 that English and Maths had to be included. By the time this headline measure was phased out in 2015, 64.9% of pupils left school with this basic benchmark. Our profession is good at self-flagellation, and a week rarely goes by without another article bemoaning the state of our schools, but things were a lot worse just a generation ago. We can of course debate whether league tables have caused this improvement, or simply revealed it.*

The most striking finding from a year-by-year check of league tables is how much they’ve changed over time. I’ve identified some key changes here (all quotations below are from DFE’s guidance document accompanying each year’s league tables):

  • 1992-1996: 4 simple measures captured in league tables %5A-C, %1A-C, %5A-G and %1A-G
  • 1997: GNVQs combined with GCSEs for the first time this year on the basis of ‘broad equivalencies’ e.g. intermediate GNVQ equivalent to 4 GCSEs at A*-C.
  • 1998: the GCSE/GNVQ average point score per 15 year old is introduced. “This provides a fuller picture of the GCSE and GNVQ achievements of pupils of all abilities. The average point score is calculated by dividing the total GCSE/GNVQ points achieved by all 15 year olds by the number of 15 year olds”.
  • 2002:
    • Introduction of KS2-KS3 value added measure and KS3 to KS4 value added measure
    • Average capped point score based on pupils’ best eight results introduced to deter school from entering pupils for an excessive amount of qualifications
  • 2004: Introduction of KS2-KS4 value-added measure.
  • 2006:
    • Contextual Value Added (CVA) introduced: “CVA takes into account the varying starting points of each pupil’s KS2 test results, and also adjusts for factors which are outside a school’s control (such as gender, mobility and levels of deprivation) that have been observed to impact on pupils results.”
    • 5A*-C including English and Maths included for the first time. This had a significant impact on the league table position of some schools, as reported by this BBC article “The effects on some schools have been dramatic. One school went from a score of 82% passing the equivalent of five A*-Cs to just 16% when maths and English were included.”
  • 2009: Progress figure for English & Maths included for first time
  • 2010: “The percentage of pupils who have met the new English Baccalaureate requirements reported for the first time this year”
  • 2011:
    • CVA measure scrapped, replaced by VA measure (best 8 with bonus for E&M), including separate VA measure for each EBacc subject
    • Figures for high, middle and low attainers introduced for first time
    • Headline figures published with and without equivalences
    • In-school gaps published for first time, revealing the gap between the GCSE outcomes of each school’s FSM pupils and its non-FSM pupils
    • iGCSEs included
  • 2012:
    • Pupil premium reported (in place of the gap analysis above)
    • Destination measures introduced
    • Gender breakdown introduced
  • 2013:
    • Progress gaps now revealed alongside attainment gaps
    • ‘Similar schools’ table introduced
  • 2014:
    • No early entry – only first entry counts for EBacc subjects
    • Wolf reforms lead to the “removal of around 3,000 qualifications from performance measures; adjustment of the point scores of non-GSCEs and the restriction on the number of non-GSCE qualifications that count to two per pupil”.
  • 2015:
    • Last year of 5A*-C with English and Maths
    • Early entry policy now counts for all subject areas
    • Progress 8 score published for schools who opted in
  • 2016: Progress 8 introduced for all schools, so the headline measures are now:
    • Progress 8
    • Attainment 8
    • English and Maths at C+
    • EBacc (entering and achieving)
    • Staying in education
  • 2017:
    • iGCSEs no longer count
    • 1-9 grades replace A*-G in English and Maths
  • 2018:
    • ECDL no longer counts
    • New measure for EBacc (average points score)
    • 1-9 grades replace A*-G in most subjects

This dizzying array of changes (and there are plenty more I didn’t include here) reveals one of the challenges of league tables: they don’t tend to remain stable for long enough to guide school improvement in a meaningful and sustainable way. Given the fact that league tables are a retrospective check on the outcome of 5 years of schooling, you would think that stability would be built into their design so that schools can gradually work towards known metrics. Instead, the frequency of reform has left some schools lurching from one change to another.

The extent of this lurching is not insignificant. In 2016 there were more than 300,000 entries for iGCSE, the final year that they were included in league tables. In 2017 the figure had fallen to 110,000, creating one of the more unusual examples of our divided school system as independent schools retained the iGCSE while state schools took flight. Independent schools, of course, do not feature in league tables.

The rise and fall of the BCS Level 2 European Computer Driving Licence Certificate in IT Application Skills (ECDL) is another example of the influence of league tables on schools’ behaviour. ECDL entries increased from 26,000 in June 2015 to 117,000 the following year, and rose again in 2017 as the ECDL was promoted as an accessible qualification that can be quickly delivered to boost the open bucket of Progress 8. Figures for 2018 are not yet released but between January and March 2018 there were just 2,800 entries for ECDL compared to 37,650 in the same quarter in 2017. Did schools suddenly decide that their pupils no longer needed this certificate in computer skills? Of course not – this qualification fell out of favour the moment it ceased to count in league tables.

As I was searching for the entry figures above I found these questions on web forums for parents and students:

  • Mumsnet, March 2016: “Is ECDL worth having? I’m sure it is in its own right. But is it equivalent to taking Physics, History, Art or French GCSE?”
  • Student Room, February 2017: “I have asked many people on whether or not ECDL counts as a GCSE and they all give different answers. Does anybody with the ECDL qualification know? Say you get 5 GCSE’s and ECDL, would a job/uni/sixthform count that as 6 GCSEs? Thank you”

“My school calls it a GCSE” is the depressing reply of two respondents to the question posed by a student.

Since the ECDL has been discounted, some school leaders have searched for the next quick win, which no doubt will itself be discounted in time. And thus continues the bizarre dance of cat and mouse that has played out between the DFE and schools since league tables were introduced. Take this example from an IPPR report in 2003:

“The Government’s decision to give intermediate GNVQs an equivalency rating of four A*-C GCSEs has led to a surge of schools taking advantage of what is seen as easy league table success. Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, for example, has embraced GNVQs from its inception. Yet now, all of their pupils take at least one GNVQ and some leave with a total equivalent of nineteen GCSEs contributing in large part to their outstanding league table performance.”

One final example of the responsiveness of schools to changes in performance measures: in 2014 when the government decided that only first entries would count for EBacc subjects, the number of early entries for GCSE Maths fell from 169,000 in 2013 to 31,000 in 2014 – a profound overnight change to the delivery of Maths at thousands of schools.

It’s difficult to defend a system which appears to result in such obviously tactical behaviour by so many schools, and it is pupils, particularly poorer pupils at schools vulnerable to weak league table performance, who are caught up in this not-so-merry dance between schools and the DFE. We see this in the fact that so many independent schools continue to enter pupils for the iGCSE, while state schools abandoned the iGCSE when it ceased to count. Pupils in independent schools therefore benefit from teachers who have taught the same qualification for several years, while state schools gradually familiarise themselves with new specifications. In my experience it is disadvantaged pupils, even the high attainers among them, who are more likely than their more affluent peers to take vocational qualifications such as BTEC Sport or BTEC Business, which again might be because they tend to find themselves in schools desperately seeking any possible league table advantage.

Does it have to be like this? One school in York gained an outstanding Ofsted judgement in 2017 with a report which praised leaders for putting the needs of pupils ‘above all else’. The report continues: “The curriculum reflects leaders’ integrity because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance table measures. Leaders have made provision for almost all pupils to study a modern foreign language because research tells them that pupils will develop valuable skills for their future.” Sure enough, the league tables show that 83% of this school’s Year 11 pupils took a language GCSE in 2017, with a progress score for language of -0.43 – sharply at odds with the school’s progress score in other subjects (e.g. science 0.48, humanities 0.63).

250 miles south, in another cathedral city, one school gained a good Ofsted judgement in 2018 despite a Progress 8 score of -0.71. The reason, as I understand it, is that the school continued to enter pupils for iGCSE in English as they believed this was in the pupils’ best interests, even though the league table performance of the school would suffer as a result (the P8 score for English here is -2.91).

Perhaps these two schools, which have flourished despite taking decisions that have hampered their league table standing, prove that the bark of the league table is worse than its bite? What would happen if more schools did their own thing rather than dance to the DFE’s tune?

More on this in our next post

*After checking my own school I went on to check the schools that I work with at United Learning. Just look at these improvements between 1992 and now:

league tables ul

Obviously this is just a handful of schools among the 3000 or so secondaries across the country, but let’s be grateful that the woeful outcomes evident in the 1992 column hardly exist anymore.

Lock up the Curriculum

A sign on the back of a security van: “This vehicle contains a locked safe to which the crew have no access.” Imagine if the school curriculum came with a similar tamper-proof warning: “THE CURRICULUM IN THIS SCHOOL IS CONTAINED IN A LOCKED SAFE TO WHICH TEACHERS, SLT AND GOVERNMENT HAVE NO ACCESS.”


As it stands, the curriculum in any given subject in any given school can be a moveable feast, disrupted one year by national reforms, the next year by the preferences of a new Head of Department, the next year by the decision to switch exam boards, the next year by a reduction in the number of hours allocated to each subject. This leads to teachers constantly teaching new topics for the first time and relying on piecemeal resources lifted from the internet.

A few examples from the history department where I started my career:

  1. We spent one half term of Y7 history making paper mache castles. It might have been fun, but it wasn’t history.
  2. The holocaust and the atomic bomb were taught in the summer term of year 9 but this was often interrupted by activities week, sports day and trips, so these crucial topics were barely touched.
  3. The GCSE course comprised mostly of topics perceived to be more accessible to our pupils, such as the American West and Medicine Through time, with coursework on Jack the Ripper. Did this prepare students for history at university? Did it fulfil their democratic right to leave school with a basic understanding of the world around them?
  4. The curriculum taught in each classroom would depend on the preferences of the teacher; we would sometimes deviate from the curriculum to teach an area of personal interest e.g. the Olympic Games or London through time (might be a good thing in the right hands but it’s a lot to ask from inexperienced teachers or teachers teaching out of their subject).

It was a curriculum guided not by powerful knowledge, eternal truths and threshold concepts but by the whims of teachers and the state of the department filing cabinet on any given day. Despite the fact that this particular history department had been in place for decades, we had failed to establish a secure curriculum and a stable set of teaching materials to go with it. The classroom experience suffered as a result, particularly for pupils taught by supply teachers and non-specialists.

We can’t guarantee every child an exceptional teacher, but we can guarantee every child an exceptional curriculum.

Our national tamper-proof curriculum would be an entitlement for all pupils. In each subject the content would be laid out in a logical sequence: year by year, term by term (the current National Curriculum simply sets out what pupils should be taught in each key stage). The stability of this curriculum would enable resources to latch on to it: lesson plans, topic tests, low-stakes quizzes, knowledge organisers and masterclass videos by subject experts.

With the whole country studying the same stuff, publishers would be able to produce textbooks cost-effectively. Perhaps most excitingly, we could collate and share the best work produced by students across the land. Forget arbitrary levels and age-related grades – pupils could see how their work compares to some of the best work in the country.

There’s one massive problem with the idea of a ‘locked-up’ curriculum though – the curriculum should not be hidden away, it should take centre stage in our schools and in our society. Safe in the knowledge that it won’t be tinkered with, it could be emblazoned on walls, plastered on corridors, published on the website alongside resources that pupils and parents can access at home. Over time the curriculum could become a sacred national treasure, enshrined in our national psyche. Let’s have a national holiday on the rare occasion (every ten years?) that we update it!

The benefits for teachers’ workload would be immense. Earlier this year I walked through the staff room of an independent school. Teachers were reading newspapers and academic journals; they huddled in subject groups planning and reviewing lesson materials. They did this because the curriculum itself had been stable for years, allowing expertise and resources to gather around it.

Does this impede the autonomy of teachers? Of course not. Delivering the curriculum – linking it to prior knowledge, deftly checking for understanding and providing precise feedback– is the very essence of teaching. Deciding what to teach places a huge burden on individual teachers. In every profession there are accepted standards that professionals simply don’t interfere with, whatever their personal preferences.

It’s time to stop tweaking, tinkering, chopping and changing. The curriculum – the stuff kids study so that they leave school with an understanding of the world around them – is too important to be left to chance.

The specific things that leaders do

I recently spent a few months supporting a school in Portsmouth as it joined our group of schools. This return to hands-on school leadership presented me with a few situations that I hadn’t encountered for a while, such as holding a meeting with a parent and child to address persistently poor behaviour which could no longer be tolerated by the school. It’s a meeting with a clear purpose: the behaviour of the pupil needs to change.


On an early morning train to Portsmouth I happened to be accompanied by one of our Regional Directors. She’s an experienced headteacher so I sought her advice for the meeting that awaited me at the school. She suggested:

  • Speak to the parent on their own first – make it clear what the problem is and what you need the parent to do.
  • Invite the pupil to join the meeting when, and only when, you have secured the support of the parent.
  • Once the pupil joins the meeting, present a united front – “I’ve explained to your mother/father what the problem is; s/he is aware of how serious this is.”
  • Be crystal clear with the pupil about the behaviour that is causing concern, why it cannot be tolerated, and what s/he needs to do instead. Check that they understand this.
  • Agree on the next steps: e.g. “you’ll return to your lessons from Period 2 but for today only I’ll need you to spend break times with your head of year. I’ll pop in to one of your lessons today and I expect to see you working hard.”

None of this is rocket science and I’m sure that people with more experience of these meetings than me follow a structure like this without even realising it. But this experience reminded me that leadership is as much about the specific things that leaders do as the lofty ideals and the glossy mission statements, and that there is good practice relating to these specific things that we can codify and share. Even if established leaders do this stuff implicitly, by making it explicit we can catalyse the development of new leaders.

I was reminded of this when I read this thoughtful post in which a serving head argues that “Too many leadership programmes focus on ‘leadership’ over domain knowledge”. The head continues, “The problem for schools comes, I would argue, when leaders are more interested in notions of leadership over and above what they are leading on.”

Similarly, this article in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that successful leadership is less about generic competencies and more about perfecting a core set of daily routines:

“Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.”

The HBR post continues: “As we pursued our work at BHP Billiton, six routines (for example, how leaders spent their time in the field, in one-on-one meetings, and in cross team meetings) were identified which, when executed well, appeared to differentiate the highest-performing supervisors from average performing ones (the routines we discovered are context-specific to BHP Billiton; the routines that are right for you depend on your organization).”

The 6 core routines for school leaders might include:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

Doug Lemov improved our understanding of teaching by codifying the specific things that effective teachers do. By making the implicit, explicit, he established a shared language that thousands of schools have adopted to develop their teachers.

Perhaps it’s time we do the same for school leadership?




Careful What We Wish For

‘Summit fever’ is the term given to an obsessive focus on a symbolic achievement – reaching the summit of a mountain, becoming a millionaire, getting married – and the risk that our focus on the end-point can distract us from the issues that matter here and now.


It’s a term explored by Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote. Drawing on Christopher Kayes’ account of a fatally flawed Everest climb, Burkeman describes a group of mountaineers for whom reaching the summit of Everest ‘became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves’. As these doomed climbers ignored worsening conditions in their pursuit of the peak, their expedition became ‘a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.’

You don’t have to spend long on a school’s website to see what it wishes for. Take this from one school: ‘With an unrelenting drive focused on achievement for all, our vision is to be graded as Outstanding within four years.’ Other schools strive to be ‘the best school in the borough’ or proclaim a ‘2020 vision’ to gain a Progress 8 of +1 by the start of the next decade.

Such statements provide clarity, purpose and urgency, but perhaps this obsession with the symbols of success distracts us from the steps required to actually get there. Burkeman tells the story of General Motors which in the early 2000s set itself a target of gaining 29% of market share. It met this ambitious target not by improving the product but by slashing the price of its vehicles. This self-imposed race to the bottom continued until it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Similarly, our school above which strives to gain its outstanding Ofsted badge might spend time sprucing up classrooms and perfecting the SEF, rather investing in teacher development. Our school that strives to be the best in the borough might resist collaborating with other local schools to support vulnerable students. Our school which seeks a Progress 8 of +1 might fill the open bucket with easier qualifications, rather than ensuring that pupils who arrive in Year 7 without basic literacy are provided with the support to catch up.

A school’s Progress 8 score and Ofsted rating do nothing in themselves to improve the prospects of its pupils, so a school driven by these external reputational goals can set itself on a path of activity which diverges from the needs of its students.

How can we avoid summit fever in our schools while still harnessing the organisational benefits of a clear and simple statement of intent?

Firstly, we can prioritise the process, not the destination, framing our targets around the inputs of school improvement. Such targets might include raising attendance, getting pupils to work harder, improving behaviour and ensuring that the curriculum is coherent and challenging.

Secondly, if we do want to set specific end-point targets, we can ensure that these benefit students, rather than the school. So rather than a Progress 8 of +1 we could commit to the majority of pupils walking out with 8 good GCSEs. Rather than being the best school in the borough we could commit to all of our students progressing to university or employment. Rather than an Ofsted outstanding rating we could commit to ensuring that all pupils can read fluently by the end of Year 7.

Say if our school above gained the outstanding judgement that it set out to achieve. What next? Like a runner with post-marathon blues, I wonder if the school would be able to sustain its momentum.

A colleague of mine recently conducted an Ofsted inspection. Throughout the process he didn’t once hear the word ‘outstanding’. It wasn’t uttered by a single member of staff. It didn’t feature on the SEF. In fact, the first person to use the word was the lead inspector when she delivered her final judgement to the school. If we invest in the process, the end-point might just look after itself.

There are hundreds of things that schools can strive for. A single headline measure, or a particular judgement from a team of inspectors, shouldn’t be the extent of our ambition.

One Click revision

Converting an intention to purchase online into the act of purchasing online is a billion pound problem for the world’s retailers. Just google ‘cart abandonment’ to see how much it bothers them.   Retailers have responded with One-Click ordering and tools which speed up the checkout process by remembering your delivery preferences and auto-filling your address.


As exam season approaches, a similar problem plays out in homes across the land: converting the intention to revise into the act of meaningful, productive revision. Thousands of potential revision hours are lost each day as students fail to convert this intention into action.

Take two ways of fixing this.

Online programmes speed the conversion from intention to action by removing the question of what to revise.  One such programme is HegartyMaths which tracks students’ progress and enables them to pick up their revision from where they left it the last time.  To convert the intention into action, simply log-in to HegartyMaths.

Less techy, but just as powerfully, Walthamstow Academy (a United Learning school which I work with) provides each student with a 1-20 book in each subject.  This 20-page booklet captures all the important stuff they need to know for that subject.  They receive it just before the Easter holidays and it guides them through the start of their revision programme, day by day.  No more sifting through piles of papers for those important notes, or spending time making revision cards; the 1-20 books enable students to crack on with meaningful revision. The intention is quickly converted into meaningful action.

We can’t remove all the barriers our students face this exam season, but we can help convert the intention to revise into meaningful revision.

If you lead on Pupil Premium…

Over the last few months we’ve been using webinars at United Learning to connect school leaders who lead on particular issues. Here’s a summary of our recent webinar on Pupil Premium, with thanks to colleagues leading on this who shared their insights so freely.

We started by looking at two recent studies.

The EEF’s Attainment Gap 2018 report tells the familiar story of the gap between PP and non-PP students increasing as they go through school (see diagram below). Our Regional Director Christine Raeside recommended comparing the books of PP and non-PP students with the same starting point. Are the PP students producing work of equal quality in Year 7?  What about years 8, 9, 10 and 11?  It’s easy to see PP analysis as a data checking exercise, all too often undertaken when it’s too late to intervene. Focusing on students’ books, and comparing PP with non-PP from the same starting points – not just within subjects, but also across subjects – enables emerging gaps to be identified while it’s still possible to act.


The EEF report goes on to say that “Even small improvements in young people’s GCSE qualifications yield significant increases in their lifetime productivity returns and in national wealth – highlighting the importance of continuing to focus on improving results for currently low-attaining pupils.” We illustrated this with the example of Totteridge Academy, where the Principal Chris Fairbairn identifies students in Y11 at risk of leaving school with very little (this school only joined United Learning 18 months ago). He calls them in to his office in the spring term of Y11 and tells them to forget about their previous 11 years. He reminds them that their exams are marked by people who don’t know them, who have no pre-conceptions of their ability, and he asks them to see their final few months of school as a fresh start. Last year this approach led to several students leaving school with some decent grades to show for their education, when before they were on course to leave with very little.

We then turned our attention to a recent OECD study which compared disadvantaged students from around the world and emphasised the importance of classroom culture: “The evidence of the positive role of school climate is supported by academic research that illustrates, in a variety of contexts, how student learning can be supported by a positive and respectful atmosphere that is relatively free of disruption and focuses on student performance”.

It’s easy to say that culture matters, but Sam Viney from Glenmoor & Winton Academies in Bournemouth (one of the highest performing schools in the south, yet PP kids outperform non-PP) brought this to life by urging PP leads to influence SLT colleagues leading on behaviour, attendance and teaching & learning by ensuring that PP students are prioritised in each of these whole-school areas.  Does the school leader leading on attendance ensure that the attendance of PP students is front and centre in their analysis and intervention? Does the school leader leading on T&L ensure that PP students particularly benefit from the school’s best teaching? Does the school leader leading on behaviour pay particular attention to PP students?

The OECD study also points to one of the key barriers for our Pupil Premium students: “Truancy, at the school level, is also strongly associated with student performance”.  This captures the twin challenge for colleagues leading on PP.  On the one hand there’s the macro – ensuring that the whole-school culture is one that supports disadvantaged students – while on the other hand there’s the micro: identifying and tackling the specific barriers that PP students face. In our experience, attendance and literacy top this list.

A key theme that emerged in our webinar is that we can’t treat Pupil Premium students as a single group. Schools with success in this area are tenacious in identifying the specific groups who might be underperforming, which might reveal that Pupil Premium girls from ethnic minority backgrounds are doing just fine, for example, while white British Pupil Premium boys might be struggling, particularly in English. There’s an important role for subject leaders and teachers here too, as they are well placed to consider how these gaps play out in their subject, and adapt their support accordingly – perhaps our white British PP boys struggle with Section B of the second literature paper where they have to compare two unseen contemporary poems?  These are the PP gaps that matter, especially if they’re discussed by teachers after a mock exam in January, and not by SLT after the final exams in August.

We closed our webinar by looking at this series of blogs from Mike Treadaway of Education Datalab, and not only because one of the stars of this series is our very own Sheffield Park Academy.  Treadaway’s analysis reinforces this point that not all PP students are the same: students who are in receipt of free school meals throughout their last 6 years (‘long term disadvantaged’) perform much worse than those who only qualified for free school meals at one or two points within the last 6 years (‘briefly disadvantaged’).

School leaders leading on PP might be wise to check their census returns so that they can distinguish between their briefly disadvantaged students and their long-term disadvantaged students.  The briefly students might just need light-touch support to ensure they’re on track, and perhaps some fine-tuning in Y11.  The long-term students, on the other hand, might need intense support to tackle stubborn barriers to achievement, such as attendance, literacy, homework and parental engagement. There might be a case for spending a higher proportion of the Pupil Premium budget on the intense support that these students need rather than spending PP funding equally on all eligible pupils.

One last thought. The 2017 Sutton Trust Chain Effects report makes it clear that trusts that do well by Pupil Premium students do well by all of their students.  By tackling the achievement of our PP students, our PP leads might just be improving the school experience for all their students.

The Best Pastoral Care

Back when I was a teacher I taught a unit on environmentalism to an A Level politics class.  We were looking at the tension between concerns for the environment and the economy in the developing world, and we came across a line that stuck in my head.  I think it was attributed to the finance minister of a developing country: “of course we care about the environment, but can we eat first?”  The argument, of course, is that it’s all very well for richer nations to bang the environmental drum, but poorer nations have more pressing concerns to worry about.

There’s something about this that reminds me of schools which prioritise all the nice stuff before they’ve got decent exam results. There is more to schools than exam results of course, but they’re a good place to start.   A while back I encountered this line from John Tomsett which wonderfully captures something I had been trying to express for some time: “The best pastoral care for socio-economically disadvantaged kids is a good set of exam results.”

The best pastoral care

Great schools strike the balance between head and heart: their kids walk out with their pockets full of decent grades, but they also find time for the guest speakers, the OAP’s tea dance, the talent show, the Christmas hamper donations, the house quizzes, the activity week and the camping trips.  But I wonder if too many of our schools focus on the fun stuff before their academic foundations are secure.

Suggesting that academic achievement should be schools’ primary concern might be stating the obvious – like someone in aviation saying that passenger safety is the number one priority, or someone in business saying that the firm has to deliver a profit.  Yet I’m not sure that our profession agrees on this basic point.

I was reminded of this recently when a headteacher friend and I wandered into our local pub.  The main bar was noisy and crowded so we headed upstairs in search of a quiet spot. We emerged in a private party and were welcomed by a friendly woman: “Come and join us, take a seat, it’s my leaving party.  I was safeguarding officer at a local secondary school but I’ve quit because I don’t like the direction the school’s going in…. management want our kids to get good grades, but for lots of the kids I work with it’s a miracle they’re even in school – we should recognise that rather than focus on exam results.”

Clearly schools need to be compassionate and caring, yet this should support our commitment to academic success, rather than replace it.  Of course we want the sports days, the trips, the charity weeks and the bake sales; and of course we don’t have to make a binary choice between standards or fun.  But our primary duty, in my view, is to ensure that all students leave with a decent set of grades.