Justine Greening’s speech at the Sutton Trust’s Mobiity Summit must have given a glimmer of hope to every leader currently serving in schools with challenging contexts.
It’s been a long time coming, but as James Bowen, Director of NAHT Edge, wrote recently in the TES ‘Greening’s signals for a less ‘punitive’ approach towards struggling schools’ could be the ‘light we’ve been waiting to see.’
It has been well documented that disadvantaged contexts impact hugely on both educational attainment and school quality, which are typically lower than that of other schools. This is primarily due to the difficulties with the recruitment of high-quality teaching staff, limited ‘short-life’ funding, high levels of pupil mobility and the increasingly low starting points of children, who are ‘quite frankly’ just not ‘school ready’ upon entry. Yet, despite these facts being widely cited, schools continue to be battered by high-level, punitive accountability measures. Is the tide about to turn?
Greening acknowledges that: “We do need to move away from a perception of a reliance on a pure punitive intervention approach. We need to, moreover, move towards a culture of having the right support in the right places at the right time, and I think for too long our strategy hasn’t had that breadth to it, and perhaps that clarity around it.”
Yes, Ms Greening, we do indeed need to move towards a culture of support, rather than this prescriptive, short-sighted approach that sees some leaders reduced to ‘playing the numbers game’ rather than incentivising them to play for the long-term gains that can only be achieved when ‘time’ and ‘money’ are factored into the equation.
As someone who has the privilege of working across schools with some of the ‘highest levels’ of deprivation in the country. I see first-hand just what our ‘amazing leaders’ are doing for the life chances of the children in their care. Actions, that simply cannot be measured under our current, narrow ‘data driven’ system. For the 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, their most basic needs must be met first – before the learning process can start.
I don’t know of any leader who would argue against the need to improve. We just need to be really clear about what we mean by ‘improve’.
Leaders, in particularly challenging contexts are generally ‘pretty special people’ who go above and beyond the call of duty to ‘improve’ the quality of life for the children in their care. They know, that success for our poorest children cannot really be measured ‘fully’ until they reach adulthood. When it is hoped, that despite the challenges they faced as children, of low aspirations, low income and unemployment, poor housing, poor health, tiredness and hunger, they emerge fully prepared from our education system, with the knowledge, skills and understanding to take their place in society. This can only be achieved, when leaders of our schools in challenging contexts, across all phases, ensure that our poorest children are fed during term time and through the holidays; make provision if they need a place to sleep during the school day; enrich their lives through engaging learning experiences and above all, keep them safe, loved and nurtured – because that is what our poorest children need.
It is with this relentless focus on ‘improving’ the life chances for our poorest children that will give them the fighting chances as adults, to compete against their more privileged counterparts in securing a sustainable income through long-term employment and a longer life expectancy. Surely, that is the real measure of success?
Most leaders are guided by a strong moral compass who genuinely want to make a difference for children. Yet when you hear of dedicated leaders exiting the profession due to the stress caused when a set of results does not meet the ‘required standard’ and the context of the ‘why’ is pretty much ignored. You know that we haven’t got it right YET!
We all need to work together to secure school improvement in our most struggling schools. This improvement must be contextualised because there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the challenges they are facing. Schools serving depriving communities need ‘time’ to improve outcomes for children.
Fund them well – and let them lead the way!