We shouldn't force schools to compete

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The Independent Online
It makes me very angry that the local comprehensive which served my children extremely well is being pushed downhill by the league tables. The staff remain as dedicated and hardworking as before. An Ofsted team found much worthy of praise and little that deserved criticism during a recent inspection. Everyone connected with the school was, therefore, flabbergasted when they discovered last summer that the percentage of A-C grades in their GCSE results had dropped dramatically. Heads are now being scratched in meeting after meeting. Why did things suddenly go so wrong? What led to this deterioration while the teachers continued to use methods that had been so effective before?

The school had been reluctant to jump on the publicity wagon when it started rolling. A neighbouring comprehensive that had previously experienced difficulties in attracting sufficient numbers was quicker off the mark. It began to sell itself in the local press at every opportunity, and its intake started to expand, particularly its share of abler pupils. Its last crop of A-C grades was very healthy. Even parents who never considered it as an option are wondering if they should reconsider.

When the Government introduced its inter-school exam competition, grammar schools in the area were, coincidentally, given licence to seek their candidates from further afield and even to lay on special transport. This was done in the name of parental choice, but perhaps also with the aim of placing these schools firmly at the top of the league and proving how well selective education works. Unfortunately, some of the parents of the brightest children succumbed to the prospect of guaranteed high exam grades.

Our local comprehensive suffered a small decline in successive intakes, but nobody was concerned, as it had been rather overcrowded before. The publicity wars, however, were not driven by a mere desire for an increase in numbers; their main aim was to attract more of the brightest.

In any given area there is a finite number of pupils who can help to lift the ethos of a whole school and the aspirations of its students, and which most schools are keen to attract. Their presence determines a school's success in examinations; what one school gains is usually another one's loss. The bright pupils now achieving As and Bs elsewhere may well have gained the same grades at the local comprehensive if they had been sent there. My own children did.

The school choices made by the better-off parents of able children strongly determine the quality of education for other sections of the population. It is they who dictate whether good schools for all are available locally. Not only do the achievements of their children give the schools they attend a good reputation, but the interest and support of the better-off and better-educated parents themselves does much to enhance the quality of their children's schools.

The poorer, less literate and less articulate parents have, as ever, little choice in the matter. Transport costs alone ensure that they prefer to send their children to the nearest available one, but they would also like it to be a good one. Their children are unlikely to be fought over, given what schools know about the strong link between academic performance and parental background. The league tables are of genuine use just to the small group of parents who are only interested in private education, such as ministers in the present government.

The writer is a retired secondary school teacher and parent.