The battle over Sedgehill School in Lewisham is, on the surface, about opposition to Academy schools. But it also goes much deeper, to the heart of the school system, and the question of the sort of education we want our children to receive.
I have stood with Green Party colleagues in opposition to Lewisham Council’s attempts to forcibly convert Sedgehill to an Academy. This would remove democratic accountability and oversight, taking power away from parents, teachers and pupils, which is part of the reason they are up in arms.
Here I was, speaking at the demonstration outside Lewisham Town Hall last year:
But I also had the pleasure recently of meeting some parents to talk about the council’s justification for its actions, and the questions that raises about attainment and accountability.
You see, one of the reasons the parents are so passionate about saving Sedgehill is that the school has a wonderful ethos that runs against the grain. The success of their school challenges the exam-factory model advocated by successive Labour and Conservative governments, the notion that success in a school can be boiled down to quantifiable grades and inspected accordingly.
The Green Party has strongly opposed Labour’s policy of turning schools into academies. In Brent, we backed the campaign to stop this fate being forced upon Gladstone Park Primary. In Brighton, our councillors and MP helped save Hove Park School, despite a concerted campaign by Labour. And in Lewisham we have backed the ‘Stop Academies in Lewisham’ campaign all the way.
The parents, teachers, pupils and governors are united behind the campaign to Save Sedgehill. It is quite incredible that the council and government feel entitled to override their views, imposing an Interim Educational Board on the school as the first step towards turning it into an Academy.
It’s also incredible that their case against the school is so vague.
The shaky case against Sedgehill
The Department for Education has guidance on ‘schools causing concern’, which sets out the process by which they and Lewisham Council are forcing these changes on Sedgehill. The justification they are using is that, they say, “the standards of performance of pupils at the school are unacceptably low”.
This must be based on the latest Ofsted report, which graded the school as ‘requires improvement’, and expressed concerns about the consistency of teaching, the attainment of students eligible for the pupil premium, and the achievement in mathematics. Well, that’s fairly clear, isn’t it?
Except the same report heaped praise on the school’s work to improve:
- The “school is now well led” and the headteacher and partner school have “steered improvements in key areas”
- The “governance is good” and “skilled” at linking “the quality of teaching to a rise in standards”
- The “school’s relentless focus on improving the quality of teaching is beginning to have an impact”
- The “students’ attitudes to learning have greatly improved”, as I found at the protests!
Page 10 of the DfE the guidance sets out how they measure “low performance”, and it is curiously vague:
“standards below the floor, on either attainment or progress of pupils; low standards achieved by disadvantaged pupils; a sudden drop in performance; sustained historical underperformance, performance of pupils (including disadvantaged pupils) unacceptably low in relation to expected achievement or prior attainment, or performance of a school not meeting the expected standards of comparable schools”
The so-called ‘floor’ is a quantified standard, and the school hasn’t fallen below it for the past four years. The remainder all seem to be quite subjective; the parents I met hadn’t managed to get a straight answer out of the council nor the DfE as to why Sedgehill qualified, so to speak.
Such an opaque process is completely undemocratic.
There are many any other flaws with the way the school has been denigrated, which I won’t go into detail here. One of my rivals in this election, Martin Powell-Davies, has done a good job of exposing many of these on his blog.
In short, the parents are in the dark, and angry.
The Green alternative
Our broad approach to education policy is laid out in this chapter of our ‘Policies for a Sustainable Society’, a huge compendium of ideas developed by party members through motions to party conferences.
On Academies, we are quite clear: “the Green Party is opposed to creating more Academies and Free Schools and will support community, school and parent campaigns that share this aim. The Green Party will integrate Academies and Free Schools into the Local Authority school system.”
What about that Ofsted inspection?
The Green Party would replace Ofsted with “a system of local accountability using continuous, collaborative assessment of schools” overseen by “an independent National Council of Educational Excellence”. Instead of primarily assessing a school on its ability to churn out good grades in an exam factory, this assessment would be much broader, looking at the development social, creative and emotional skills as well as academic, so that it is “in the interests of enhancing the learning of the individual child”.
The parents I spoke to liked the thrust of our broad approach, but wanted more specifics. Just as they felt the DfE guidance on “schools causing concern” was vague, so they felt we Greens should set out more clearly what we might do with a school like Sedgehill.
Being more specific – what would we do?
I’ve no expertise or experience in education, besides having been to school myself, so I sought the advice of our Spokesperson on schools, Samantha Pancheri, and another Green expert Martin Francis.
First, I asked: how would we define attainment? Clearly the DfE act on the claim that they can judge low performance, but don’t clearly define what they mean by that.
Martin suggested the defining of low performance, as with improving performance, would be through a partnership between teachers, local authorities and the National Council for Educational Excellence:
I think this would be linked to the role of the National Council for Educational Excellence. Our Learning Entitlement Curriculum does not lend itself to mere quantitative measurements and would have much broader success criteria but collaborative work with the Council for Educational Excellence and local authorities should come up with some performance indicators that could provide a baseline for the basic skills we envisage. I see this as based on externally moderated teacher assessments rather than tests.
He also pointed out that Green Party policy is quite radical in broadening accountability. Student and parent councils are encouraged, and the former would have voting rights on the governing body. It would be up to this governing body to determine, in collaboration with the local authority and the Council for Educational Excellence, their definition of “low performance”.
This takes me to my second question: what about assessing if schools are up to scratch? Samantha put it quite plainly: “the whole idea of being inspected and assessed by a central body would go out of the window… Because we will eliminate the very intimidating presence of Ofsted, schools will actually be encouraged to seek out assistance, without fear of it damaging their reputation.”
So what about seeking assistance; what would we do with a failing school? No parent would be happy for their children to be let down by a system so concerned with the exam factory that it went too far the other way. Samantha wrote:
“A failing school, under a Green system, would be one which does not enable students to realise their full potential – whatever that potential may be. If a pupil arrives at the school unable to read or write, with very low self esteem and scared to ask for help, but at the end of his or her time there, can confidently write, enjoys reading and is happier within themselves, this is an enormous success and should be recognised as such.”
So what about Sedgehill, where Ofsted found that maths education wasn’t up to scratch? I was a very academic child, and suffered for a time at a primary school that was decidedly un-academic until my parents moved me.
Martin chimed in. The most important thing, he suggested, isn’t to bully and intimidate schools into improving, but to trust and support teachers to improve. We would “reverse the process by which teachers have gradually been deskilled and their professional autonomy eroded”, and “have talks with professional associations about improving their status and training and dealing with poor performance”.
We would restore funding to local authorities, ending the austerity cuts, and require their School Improvement Teams and local schools to work collaboratively with the Council for Educational Excellence. Their interventions would be informed by educational research, not the whims of a Secretary of State.
If the local authority, parents, pupils and governors felt that maths GCSE grades needed improvement, they would direct the school to improve in that area.
My final worry was that parents might, collectively, fail their children by putting up with low standards. Would we set a floor, below which no school could fall? Martin suggested “this would be linked to the role of the National Council for Educational Excellence”. It would be for this Council to set out the floor, based on evidence, and I think following the parents’ concerns about the DfE guidance it should be testable – that is, it should be clear whether or not a school meets its requirements.
A totally different vision for education
In his contribution to the book, Why Vote Green, Martin wrote: “Greens want to restore creativity to the classroom for the sake of both teachers and students, we want to raise the status of teachers and restore their professional autonomy.”
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow Education Secretary, claimed our education policies are “total madness“, and that we speak “a language of low aspiration and defeatism”. But it is his party that has driven teachers to their wits end with their obsessive desire to quantify, inspect and control the school environment. It is their denigration of teachers and their narrow language of attainment that is “total madness”.
This disdain for teachers doesn’t stop with their policies, as I found out last week on Twitter. One of the parents I met with asked Hunt for Labour’s education policies…. oh dear:
Samantha was rather kind about Sedgehill when I described the attitude of parents, pupils, teachers and governors towards the attainment levels of the school, and the campaign to save it:
“From what you’ve described, it sounds as though the parents, teachers and governors are all actively involved in assisting the school to help students realise their full potential, in a much more rounded way than simply churning them through one examination after another.”
Amen to that.