Schools: Could do better: leafy suburbs hide low achievers

Their results look fairly good, but they may be coasting along rather than stretching pupils, says Lucy Hodges
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All is not well in leafy Middle England. Warwickshire, home of Shakespeare and final resting place of Enoch Powell, is one of a number of counties thought to be letting down its children.

In a report last week, the Audit Commission pointed out that schools in some affluent areas were coasting. Their GCSE results might look all right - 44 per cent in Warwickshire achieve grades A to C - but they weren't good when you took into account parental background as measured by children on free school meals.

The Audit Commission's report increases the pressure on education authorities - particularly those which have hitherto got off quite lightly - to pull their socks up. In a striking row of bar charts, it shows that Lincolnshire, one of the richest authorities, achieved roughly the same GCSE results as Camden, one of the poorest.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, says, "Coasting local educations authorities, like coasting schools, should be challenged to perform better. Above all else, local education authorities should be supporting schools in difficulty."

A look at Warwickshire's exam results illustrates the problem. On the northern edge of salubrious Leamington Spa lies North Leamington comprehensive school in an exquisite neighbourhood - large period homes, closely cropped lawns, prosperity oozing out of every flowering magnolia. But its GCSE results are disappointing, particularly if you consider where it is - only 37 per cent of pupils got five A to C grades last summer, compared with a national average for England of 45 per cent.

David Kohler, a school governor and Liberal Democrat county councillor, explains, "North Leamington School may be situated in a leafy part of town but a lot of children come from one council estate. That's not an excuse. I think we should be doing better."

I asked to visit the school, but my request was turned down. It was not a convenient time, I was told. David Batchelor, chairman of governors at North Leamington, declined to talk, save to say, "We are never satisfied with the results."

Other schools in Warwickshire do better. Higham Lane, a comprehensive in Nuneaton, has GCSE results of 63 per cent for grades A to C; Kenilworth's figure is 54 per cent - though you could argue that, given its catchment area and high proportion of thrusting educated parents, it should be higher still. At the same time, some schools in the county do much worse. And a couple of schools appear in this year's table of schools whose exam results show the biggest decline in the country: the Trinity, a Roman Catholic school in Leamington, has seen a fall of 13 percentage points in its results; and Hartshill, a grant-maintained school in Nuneaton, has suffered a 12 percentage point decline.

Officials at Shire Hall in Warwick bristle at the comparisons being drawn by the Audit Commission. They insist that they are not complacent and that they are ambitious for their children. But their replies sound horribly defensive. "It's not as simple a relationship between socio-economic factors and GCSE results as implied," says Eric Wood, the county's chief education officer. "There's clearly a link, but whether it's as simple as is being portrayed I rather doubt.

"What the Audit Commission doesn't do is to come out with some sort of thorough analysis. There are lots and lots of statistics which are probably very helpful for those in the system. What matters to us is how we interpret those and how we get comparative data to governing bodies and engage them in the process of improvement."

He is exercised that the Audit Commission excluded grant-maintained schools from its calculations. That depressed the county's GCSE results because it excluded seven schools which on the whole get good results, he says. And he is keen to point out how poor government funding is for Warwickshire schools.

Resentment at the government funding formula goes back a long way. Together with other councils, Warwickshire formed the so-called E7 group, the poorest- funded education authorities, and has been campaigning, so far without success, to get the formula changed. Low funding doesn't help to produce great education, Mr Wood points out.

The problem is that the figures show another badly-funded education authority, North Yorkshire, performing well. There is no clear pattern to the data. Does Warwickshire think there is nothing wrong with its schools? Mr Wood goes into marginally less defensive mode: all schools - indeed everybody - can improve. And Warwickshire is trying, he says. It has produced a development plan, as required by the Government, and is setting targets for schools and individual children. Tomorrow it is meeting all secondary heads. Later this year it will be setting GCSE targets for its schools and an overall target for the county.

But Mr Wood remembers another mitigating factor: the county underwent a traumatic school reorganisation two years ago. Before then, Warwickshire had a middle school system. The reorganisation meant middle schools were abolished. Heads and teachers had to reapply for jobs.

"It caused a lot of upset," says Mr Kohler. "It put tremendous stress on officials, there were endless meetings and they took their eye off the ball."

Nationally, one or two experts have pointed out that using free school meals as an indicator of deprivation is crude. Peter Tymms, reader in education at Durham University, says, "It is a crude approach but, as a first look at the information, it's not a bad way forward. You really want to have information about individual pupils to work out the progress they and the schools are making. You need to know what their special needs and reading levels were when they came in, and set that against performance at GCSE."

That kind of information will be available in future years. It will be possible soon to compare key stage 3 data - the 11- to 14-year-old period - with GCSE results. Until then, local authorities and schools will have to make do with the information that exists.

Dr Tymms has no doubt the Audit Commission report is valuable. "We should be moving in the direction of looking at the services provided and deciding whether they are giving value for money," he says. That means counties like Warwickshire will continue to squirm unless they can show some improvement.