Setting: damaging our pupils but convenient for teachers?

This week Teach First,  a charity founded to encourage top graduates into teaching  and which places such graduates in ‘challenging’ secondary schools has contributed to a long-standing debate on setting in its latest report: Lessons from the Front 2009.

In this report the issue of setting is raised. 

Setting is a practice whereby pupils are taught in subjects according to their ability in a particular subject, and has been commonly used in secondary education, including in comprehensive schools despite the apparent ‘mixed ability’ characteristics of comprehensive schools.  The significance of setting is that it has been implicated in the continued under-attainment of working class pupils and fuels a differentiation and polarisation of school cultures.  Classic sociological studies which discuss and illustrate this include Hargreaves’s 1967 study: Social Relations in a Secondary School; Lacey’s 1970 work: Hightown Grammar: the school as a social system, and Ball’s 1981 study: Beachside Comprehensive.

Now, in the report conducted by Teach First, the graduate teachers working in schools have added to this with their observations that not only is setting damaging for pupils in lower sets in terms of motivation and low teacher expectations, but that setting is there for the convenience of teachers.

However, viewers of last week’s episode of Waterloo Road may have taken note of how Grantly Budgen reacted when the introduction of setting was proposed.  He clearly did not appear to be inconvenienced by the prospect of setting and was concerned about a teacher’s status being reflect by the ability group he or she taught.   In fact many of his colleagues shared a concern   introduction of setting, perhaps sharing some of the concern of the Teach First teachers?

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Ofsted: The Annual Report

Today Ofsted (the agency responsible for inspecting schools and children’s services) launched its report for 2008/09.  It is mainly based on inspections and statutory visits between September 2008 and August 2009.

The report starts off by highlighting some areas for praise; in terms of schools 70% are judged as good or outstanding (these are the terms that Ofsted uses to judge schools when they are inspected as part of the inspection cycle, they are not without problems)  88% of initial teacher training providers are also deemed good or outstanding, and 63% of FE colleges were considered good or outstanding. 

Outside of schooling, many aspects of children’ s services have been praised.

So it’s all good news for children then?

Not quite.  The Report also highlights areas of concern.

Firstly, consider the following:

“schools with a high proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds are still more likely to be inadequate. ”

To sociologists of education this is not a surprise.  Social class shapes educational experiences and outcomes.  But this observation does not just refer to the educational attainment of pupils from deprived backgrounds. It is based on Ofsted’s interpretation of how good a school is.  Could this mean that whether a school is judged to be good, outstanding or inadequate is related to the socio-economic background of the pupils it admits? 

Some sociological studies into school context have observed a similar connection.  Ruth Lupton in a 2005 article for the British Educational Research Journal observed that schools in poorer areas provided a ‘poorer’ level of education.  In another article  appearing in a 2006 edition of  the British Journal of Educational Studies Martin Thrupp along with Ruth Lupton highlight the influence of school context on processes not just the school’s educational outcomes. 

Perhaps the fact that Ofsted has found inadequate schools to be concentrated in areas with high levels of deprivation is not surprising.  Yet in the context of educational reforms introduced by the new Labour Government since 1997 which have been focused on tackling social exclusion and have been positioned as a means of promoting social mobility, the continuing connected between deprivation and poor educational performance should prompt concern about the effectiveness of those reforms.

Another key area highlighted in the Annual Report is the “‘stubborn core’ of inadequate teaching”  (note this does not say inadequate teachers).    Interestingly it was today’s Guardian that reported on “bad teachers”  while the Independent reported on the problem of “poor teaching”.   What this actually means, according to Ofsted is that a lot of teaching remains “satisfactory”, whereas it could be, “outstanding”.  It highlights that satisfactory teaching does not do enough to “inspire, challenge and extend children, young people and adult learners”. Not only does this relate to debates around the purposes of teaching and education but it focuses attention on teachers once again, and whether they should be blamed for the apparent ‘crisis’ over standards in education.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill

This Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on the 19th November this year. 

The bill sets out to reforms schools as well as other childrens’ services and sets out  a number of guarantees to parents and children as to what they can expect from the Schools system in the 21st century. 

In part, the Bill follows on from the Rose Review by implementing many of the recommendations found in that report and introduces curriculum reforms. No long will children be taught separate subjects, but the primary school curriculum will be divided into 6 areas.  So, for example skills in literacy and numeracy can be developed in a range of subjects such as history.  This is a move seen in other Western European countries, yet it hardly seems radical to apply the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy to an understanding of history, geography and mathematics. 

The national curriculum will  become less centralised, this having been a criticism of the National Curriculum as well as Labour Governments in general.  Although of course the National Curriculum came into force in 1988 under a Conservative administration, which had apparently rolled back the state.  Now, schools and teachers are to be trusted to make decisions on how best to teach subjects like Maths and English, although basic skills and knowledge are to underpin everything learnt in school.  While history is to be taught under a ‘historical, social and geographical’ theme, British history is  to become a feature of primary school pupil’s learning,    

The bill contains guarantees including a commitment to one-to-one tuition for pupils who are falling behind their peers.  Parents have a right to redress if such guarantees are not met, perhaps allowing greater ‘parentocracy’ and the inequalities associated with that.

Teachers will be subject to a license to practice and they will be required to demonstrate their fitness to teach at designated intervals.  This could be an attempt to tackle the ‘problem’ of incompetent teachers.  In fiction we have them in the form of Steph Haydock and  Grantly Budgen in Waterloo Road.  A ‘discourse of derision’ (as identified by Stephen Ball)  where the problem of incompetent teachers is evident in parts of the popular press  (see for example this article in the Daily Mail). Surely this development, introduced in this Bill is exactly what these critics want?

Another significant development arising from this new Bill is the introduction of a register of home educated pupils.  This can be seen as the state interfering in the private lives of those who wish to educate their children themselves, but yet is designed to protect children as in some case home education is used as a cover for child abuse.  Again, those who claim the Government should be doing more to protect vulnerable children will welcome this?

The impact of parental choice on school admissions

One of the principles introduced under the 1988 Education Act by the then Conservative Government was the notion of parental choice in selecting a school for their child.  The idea behind this was that the market would drive up standards in education, good schools would be the popular schools while bad schools would be forced to improve or squeezed out of the market altogether as parents sent their children elsewhere. League tables became important as parents could digest these and make informed decisions about which was the best school for their child.  This all sounds well and good….no-one would want to send their child to a failing school, therefore pupils would go to the better schools and standards would be driven up as bad schools improved in order to compete and retain pupils.

In reality, it is quite different.  Sociological research has examined the strategies and resources that middle class parents employ in order to get their child into the school of their choice.  For example writers including Reay, Lucey, Bowe, Ball and Gerwitz have all identified a range of strategies that middle class parents use. 

More recently, as reported in The Guardian,  Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves, Anna Vignoles and Deborah Wilson have produced a report through Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation which finds that social class segregation  at primary school is being fuelled by the policy of parental choice. One of the key factors for poorer parents was the proximity of the primary school. In other words they are likely to choose a school for their child because it is close.  Middle class parents, of course have more resources (i.e a car) to ensure that their child is able to attend a school at a distance from home. 

The solution that the authors suggest is a lottery.   At secondary school level this has already been tried, in Brighton as reported by the BBC provoking angry responses from some parents.  The lottery meant, of course that parents could not employ strategies to get their child into the school of their choice, instead the process was replaced by a system that treated everyone the same.  The authors of this latest report add to this, arguing that a lottery would be a means of ensuring a greater social mix and less social segregation in our schools.

The key stage 2 attainment of ‘poor’ white boys

This week saw the release of statistics on Key Stage 2 attainment, broken down by pupils characteristics for 2008/09.  The figures are published as part of the Department for Children, School’s and Families’ (DCSF) programme of releasing education statistics, and is published in a Statistical First Release available as a PDF here.   While news reports have focused on the 48% of poor white boys who achieve the expected Level 4 at key stage 2, the figures need to interpreted carefully.  The term ‘poor’ comes from the measure used by the DCSF, that is eligibility for free school meals  (often referred to as FSM) and is not an unproblematic way of measuring the poverty experienced by school pupils. The key word eligibility for free school meals is misleading, as it actually describes the claiming of FSM.  Children who are ‘eligible’ for FSM also share some family background characteristics, particularly coming from a  single parent family.  The FSM figure is therefore only a proxy for poverty, although it is a widely used one.  It will exclude some children who live in ‘poor’ households.  It also serves to homogenise all children eligible for FSM, ignoring differences between them, in other words not all pupils eligible for FSM will be suffering from cultural and material deprivation and be growing up in households where educational attainment is not considered important.   Graham Hobbs and Anna Vignoles, from the London School of Economics provide a detailed analysis of the utility of using FSM data to measure pupils’ experiences of poverty.  In addition the Statistical First Release provides information on the Key Stage 2 attainment of other pupils, which to some extent has largely been ignored by the focus on ‘poor’ white boys.   The figures show that pupils from an Irish Traveller background and those of a Gypsy/Romany background do particularly poorly at Key Stage 2.  Pupils from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background continue to do less well than their white peers, as do children from Black African and Black Caribbean backgrounds.   Indian and Chinese pupils continue to outperform other ethnic groups.  The figures also show a continuing gender gap, as overall a higher proportion of girls (74.4%) achieved Level 4 at Key Stage 2 than did boys (69.3%).The figures do indicate that class (which is difficult to measure with any degree of certainty), gender and ethnicity shape educational attainment and that an intersection of all three is significant, it is this intersection which needs to be examined in greater detail to help explain the subtleties in differential attainment of pupils by class, ethnicity and gender.

Waterloo Road

The latest series of Waterloo Road is upon our television screens.   For those who have yet to witness this, tune into ITV on a Wednesday evening where you will be able to watch a gritty drama about a Manchester Comprehensive School.   

Now in its fifth series the school has survived threatened closure, a head teacher accused of fraud, arson and, at the end of the last series demolition by a disgruntled parent.  It has tackled a range of issues from cyber bullying, death, teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexuality, Aspergers’ Syndrome, sexual intimidation, murder, alcoholism and illegal adoption, amongst a multitude of other issues.  Most recently, following the latest episode the series has been implicated in promoting a copy cat incident of ethanol abuse among a group of school pupils in Walsall.      The series embodies all that is feared about Comprehensive Schools.  Attainment is below average, aspirations of many of the working class pupils are low, pupils are disruptive, a number of its teachers are lazy and incompetent as well as promiscuous.  In short the school is a ‘dangerous place’.  This is an image of Comprehensive Schools found elsewhere, and has been identified in Sociological research, for example in the work of Diane Reay.

Yet, just how realistic is the representation of reality portrayed in Waterloo Road? 

This current series began with Waterloo Road School having being repaired following the demolition at the end of the last series.  An influx of middle class pupils was in evidence following a ‘merger’ with another school while off-air. The school name ‘Waterloo Road’ remained along with its original pupils wearing the familiar burgundy school uniform, contrasting with the green and blue of ‘John Fosters’, the middle class school.  Unsurprisingly current storylines feature the clash of school cultures polarising the disruptive working class of Waterloo Road with the hard working, well groomed John Fosters pupils.  A dramatised version of the polarisation thesis explored by Hargreaves and others is being played out on our screens.   Surely the LEA and senior management could have foreseen such problems and sought to ease the transition to a new school?  Perhaps they could have looked at the launch of Academies where apparently new schools are launched on the site of an old ‘failing’ school, often incorporating pupils from more than one school which has been closed down. As part of the launch there is a new name, often alongside a new distinctive uniform.  This is well documented and the efforts at rebranding are an attempt to create a new school (or academy) identity and avoid the dominance of one school culture over others.  Perhaps the LEA and staff responsible for Waterloo Road should become more aware of common practices around school mergers?

The suspension of reality goes on:  In the first episode we saw a police officer who appeared incapable of relaying bad news to the children of a murder victim. How did he manage to reach the position of Detective Inspector in a murder squad?   In the next episode an alleged rape was investigated for what seemed like most of the day before the police were called.  When the police were made aware it was malicious allegation they were met with a ‘sorry for wasting your time’  from the pupil, they appeared happy to leave, and the malicious accuser was sensitively escorted away to ‘collect her things’.

The executive head, responsible for a number of other schools in addition to Waterloo Road (who never seems to attend any of his other schools) launched a volunteering scheme and administers punishments without the knowledge of the schools’ head teacher.  Not only that, but  he is emerging as a sexual predator.  Is that reality?

Returning to the ethanol, a large amount of bootleg soft drink  mixed with ethanol  appeared to be created from one bottle stolen from a cabinet in the science classroom (not secured in a technicians room ).  While the fact that the recent incident reported in the papers suggests that fiction has influenced fact, the episode in question did deal with the negative consequences of such behaviour.  The incompetent, promiscuous, but likeable French teacher has  been implicated in allowing harm to come to one pupil in this incident.  Although she has been accused of professional misconduct she remains to fight another day.    The episode  did deal with the negative consequences of ethanol abuse, although the accusation suggests that the drama acted like a hypodermic syringe directly influencing the Walsall school pupils who could not tell fact from fiction.  Strange then that they replicated only the drinking and missed the message about how dangerous it was. 

But are comprehensive schools really like this?  Or do we just think they are?  

Perhaps, as a starting point we should ask what type of secondary school do most children attend anyway?  Are they all as frightening as Waterloo Road?  I doubt it.

The series does reflect many of the fears about comprehensive schools that have been reported in the media and identified in sociological research.  Phenomena such as ‘white flight’ and middle class abandonment of inner city comprehensive schools has been documented  (See work by Sally Tomlinson or Stephen Ball).  Waterloo Road does represent this.  Remember the disgruntled parent who demolished the school? He was a police officer who felt his daughter was being damaged by the school and the ‘undesirables’ she was mixing with.  Taking a JCB to the school foyer does, however appear to be an extreme reaction undocumented in reality.  I stand to be corrected however.  Some sections of the media too are keen to point to the danger that is represented by comprehensive schools and this perception is found in research on attitudes towards comprehensive schools.

As a representation of reality then, Waterloo Road should not be seen as a generalisation of all comprehensive schools.  However the fact that it is portrayed as a dangerous place where any decent middle class parent would not send their child does represent a reality of sorts.  One that perceives comprehensive schools as predominantly urban and unruly.  Maybe it gives us what we want from a comprehensive school drama?

Incidentally, the  school in Walsall implicated in a copy-cat of the ethanol episode, Aldridge School is a  specialist Science College, not a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive like Waterloo Road.  According to its latest Ofsted report it takes in pupils with from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and has fewer than average  pupils eligible for free school meals. Unlike Waterloo Road it is also over subscribed, and has a thriving sixth form.  It  is, presumably considered more desireable and less dangerous than Waterloo Road.

I’ll be tuning in this week for episode 4.