Sunday, April 25, 2010

Allan Peachey: Turning Around Failing Schools

I have recently spent two weeks in London studying the Westminster style of Government. Perhaps in a future column I will branch out from education and offer some thoughts on that. For the moment however, I will confine myself to some thoughts on the English schooling system, which in many ways is a mess. There are lessons in what I am about to describe for New Zealand.

The Government has ordered spot checks on school enrolments to catch out parents who “cheat” to get their children into the best comprehensive schools. I stress that the word “cheat” is the British Government’s, not mine. It is estimated that 4,200 fraudulent enrolment forms are submitted each year across England and 1,400 “cheating” families are caught. The Government will require that at least 10% of applications will be checked on a random basis. This is in light of Government figures that show one in three families are unable to get their children into their first choice school. This is what happens when you have high performing schools and tolerate poor performing schools, called “sink” schools in the United Kingdom.

There are even suggestions that parents should face criminal prosecution for doing all they can to get their children into a decent school in an environment which requires that a significant group of parents send their children to failing schools. In many communities the State has a monopoly in the provision of schooling, even more so in New Zealand than in the United Kingdom. That fact alone imposes an extra obligation on the Government to guarantee a uniform quality of schooling for all children in all communities. Enforcing rules around enrolment is a very poor substitute for providing decent schools for all children. If the time and money that is put into enforcing petty rules around enrolments was put into improving school quality a lot of other problems would go away.

Is there any greater indictment of a weak state schooling system than parents being forced to risk breaking the law on the chance of getting their children into a decent school? It is even being referred to as “school place theft”. I would have thought the greater theft was the theft from children of a decent schooling. We have to stop the use of enrolment rules to create winners and losers in schooling. The only way to do that is more good schools.

And that is what the Conservatives and Labour are squabbling about in the lead up to the general election, although both have policies which would lead to the closure of failing schools. The Conservatives have announced a “hit list” of 75 primary and secondary schools and promised that those running those schools would be removed within the first 100 days of a Conservative government. Such schools are to be reopened the following year as academies. Labour has dismissed the hit list as “unambitious” and claims that while in government it has changed the leadership of scores of under-performing secondary schools or turned them into academies. The Government claims to be taking action against 250 schools at present.

The Government is expected to announce that thousands of primary schools will be forced into mergers or be taken over by “executive” principals who would be responsible for several schools. More junior staff would be responsible for individual schools. Some say this will make better use of the best school principals by spreading their talents over a wider range of schools. Others describe it as “cost cutting”! Secondary schools have also been told by the Government that they will be closed if at least 30% of their students fail to achieve five GCSEs at C grade or better. That seems too low a threshold to me.

But having said all this, the answer to a failing school is simple. Get rid of the principal and put in their place a person capable of doing the job. And capable means a willingness to get rid of senior staff and teachers who are not performing. It means ridding the school of a culture of failure, fuelled by low expectations and more concern for political correctness than for what children need to make them learn. And it also means having the unqualified support of the trustees responsible for the governance of the school. There can be no second-guessing of a principal driving school improvement.

Not possible I hear the education cynics say. Definitely possible I reply. I have seen it happen too many times in New Zealand to know it’s possible.

And I saw it on a visit to an English secondary school on the eastern edge of London recently. Six years ago a new principal was appointed. At that time the school’s GCSE pass rate was just 16%. Today it is over 60%, still not as good as it needs to be but progressing well. Although the principal is very generous in giving credit to the students I reminded her without her style of driving and determined leadership it would not have happened. She expects the students to do well and in increasing numbers they are.

And none of it is rocket science. Just simple good principalship and everything that follows from it.


Anonymous said...

The best way to rid our future generations of poor teachers and failing schools is to rank student skills and publish them for all to see. It's no use fiddling around the edges.

The secrecy is typical of state owned insitutions that protect self interests (in this case teachers).

The state is very bad at running insitutions - you only have to look at the abuse off kids who become wards of the state.

Anonymous said...

There is a very simple solution to schooling in NZ - and the only once that has any hope of solving the problem.

Simply school boards of trustees with all their real-estate, remove all state funding, and cancel all employment contracts involved in the state school sector. That's it. Each BoT can then make the best decisions for their school in their area. That's all that's needed.