Guest post: ‘Coasting’ schools – another stick with which to beat state schools?

Michael Bassey, an Emeritus Professor of Education at Nottingham Trent University, has been following the developments on so-called ‘coasting’ schools and is worried about the potential impact on state schools…

Michael Bassey

Michael Bassey

The Prime Minister spoke “On Opportunity” on 22 June and said this on education: “We need to improve what I have called ‘coasting schools’.

Now the Education Secretary has set out to Parliament the principles we will apply to judge whether schools are coasting. Coasting schools are those where standards have been mediocre for too many years and aren’t improving quickly enough. Schools where standards could and should be higher, given their intake and potential.”

So, what did Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education tell the House of Commons on ‘coasting’ schools?

“Let me set out the principles that will inform the definition (of ‘coasting’ schools). First, I want to make it clear that the definition will be based on pupil performance data and not on a single Ofsted judgment… Secondly, the definition will take into account the progress pupils make – whether they achieve their potential based on their starting point and whether the brightest are being stretched and the less able properly supported. Finally, the definition will be based on performance over three years…”

“Coasting” is a new handle for making political capital out of schools: it used to be “failing”. There are now only a few of the latter (235 in over 24,000 schools) so a new form of denigration-for-political-ends was needed. I’m sorry to use this phrase, but it is how it seems.

Why are politicians obsessed with “pupil performance data” which means test results at 7, SAT results at 11, GCSE results at 16, and a statistical measure of ‘progress’ from one set of results to the next? Politicians, many with backgrounds outside the state system of schooling, have a very narrow view of what state education should be about.

The following ten purposes of school education, in my judgement, define what schools and the work of teachers should be about. No doubt others could add to them or would express them differently but, by and large, agreement can be expected among teachers.

  1. Learning the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, debating, and mathematical skills;
  2. Beginning to learn of the cultural wealth that one can spend one’s life exploring: science, history, geography, literature, philosophy, art, music, languages and much else;
  3. Developing natural talents for creative expression: writing, drawing, painting, dancing, singing, making music;
  4. Learning how to relate to others peacefully and with mutual respect by becoming moral citizens with ethical standards and a commitment to community;
  5. Learning how to collaborate and when to compete, when to be tolerant, when to be assertive and when to stand up for one’s rights;
  6. Learning to respect and enjoy the natural world;
  7. Learning healthy use of one’s body through diet, exercise and sport;
  8. Learning how to go on learning for the rest of one’s life – and to expect to find the pleasure of it;
  9. Learning to know and value oneself, and
  10. Through all of this preparing oneself for the world of work, home and play.

Pupil performance on the first three of these purposes can, to a limited extent, be measured by test and examination, although the extent to which any assessment can be deemed valid and reliable will always be open to challenge. The other seven purposes cannot be quantitatively measured and teachers can say little more to parents, for example, than “She collaborates well with others” and “He is beginning to enjoy nature study”. But the inability to measure them does not negate their value in the development of young people.

These ten statements circumscribe the concept of all-round education and to judge a school only by challengeable measures of some or all of the first three is absurd. Indeed it could be argued that the fourth statement is as significant as learning the skills of reading and writing in that it could reduce the crime rate and help keep people out of prison.

Looking deeper into the Secretary of State’s second part of her definition of ‘coasting’, we may wonder how anyone, let alone an outsider to a school, can quickly determine whether pupils “achieve their potential based on their starting point”. And how can an accurate judgement be made as to whether “the brightest are being stretched” and whether “the less able are properly supported”? Classroom teachers, after spending weeks working with pupils, can make a stab at these judgements, but know that they can be wrong.

At the risk of seeming flippant (but actually quite serious) we might recognize that it is not a school’s performance over three years that should be looked at but the happiness and achievements of their pupils after thirty years – when they are adults in their mid-lives! Yes, impossible, but not as invalid as the present way of judging a school.

The Prime Minister ended his remarks about education by saying:

“These changes mean we will turn around 1,000 more failing schools and improve hundreds more coasting schools”

A BBC report on 3 June notes:

“Currently, schools are said to be failing if rated inadequate by Ofsted and missing government benchmarks on results and pupil progress, but new yardsticks are to be consulted on in the near future… Currently, 235 schools are deemed to be failing…”

The confusion over numbers either means the Prime Minister’s counting skills are weak or he intends that the ‘yardsticks’ will be moved to label another 765 schools as ‘failing’. And so the pressure on young people and their teachers will mount further to ensure that test and exam results pass the new ‘yardstick’. Perhaps it should be written ‘yard stick’ as another repressive measure hits our schools.

 

What do you think of the concerns expressed here by Professor Bassey?

Is there anything you would add or challenge?

Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…

 

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Comments

  1. Professor Bassey is correct.  But he’ll be dismissed by politicians as being a member of the ‘Blob’ and uncaring about ‘social justice’, the handle on which the Gov’t hangs its policies.

  2. Janet2 Thanks Janet.  The Guardian once called me “ringleader of the Blob.  Nonsense of course – we’re not that organised!  To me “social justice’ is not about access to so-called ‘top universities’ or big jobs in banks but about equality in terms of reducing poverty, and curbing riches.  Put simply social justice should be about ensuring that the wealth created by workers is more equally shared.

  3. Janet2 Thanks Janet.  The Guardian once called me “ringleader of the Blob.  Nonsense of course – we’re not that organised!  To me “social justice’ is not about access to so-called ‘top universities’ or big jobs in banks but about equality in terms of reducing poverty, and curbing riches.  Put simply social justice should be about ensuring that the wealth created by workers is more equally shared.

  4. Nairb

    Professor Barry encapsulates the significant problem we now face in the phrase ‘denigration for political ends.’ Morgan’s feeble attempt to define ‘coasting’ simply exposes the fact that coasting will mean whatever ministers decide.
    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

  5. Nairb

    Apologies Professor, my spellcheck couldn’t cope with Bassey and decided Barry was a suitable alternative, which I failed to notice.

  6. @Nairb Not to worry.  There are much worse distortions of my name!  When I read your post I thought “Humpty Dumpty had a big fall”.  But it’ll be a while before this happens I think.    Best wishes

    Michael

  7. Michael Bassey Janet2 ‘Social justice’ has been highjacked by politicians (and not just those on the right).  ‘Social justice’ and ‘social mobility’ are, according to these politicians, solely the responsibility of schools and individual pupils who must ‘aspire’ to go to uni and then find a so-called ‘good’ job.  Morgan let the cat out of the bag when she said she wanted qualifications to be matched with tax data to show which qualifications were linked with financial reward.  A ‘good’ job, then, is measured by earnings, apparently.  But Morgan’s life would be a lot less comfortable if low-paid workers didn’t empty her wheelie bin, clean the House of Commons loos and care for her when she becomes frail and vulnerable.
    Social justice is ensuring that those who do these essential jobs are paid fairly and not exploited.

  8. Michael Bassey Janet2 ‘Social justice’ has been highjacked by politicians (and not just those on the right).  ‘Social justice’ and ‘social mobility’ are, according to these politicians, solely the responsibility of schools and individual pupils who must ‘aspire’ to go to uni and then find a so-called ‘good’ job.  Morgan let the cat out of the bag when she said she wanted qualifications to be matched with tax data to show which qualifications were linked with financial reward.  A ‘good’ job, then, is measured by earnings, apparently.  But Morgan’s life would be a lot less comfortable if low-paid workers didn’t empty her wheelie bin, clean the House of Commons loos and care for her when she becomes frail and vulnerable.
    Social justice is ensuring that those who do these essential jobs are paid fairly and not exploited.

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