How to transform our failing schools

New criteria for league tables would create a culture of success, argues David Davis
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The Independent Online
The way we run our schools matters - more than the pupils' ability, more than their background, more than the resources we pour in.

The top table (below) describes two schools in the same area, with similar resources and similar ability intakes. Conventional wisdom says their youngsters should have scored similar academic results.

But the disparity was massive. The most stunning outcome was that the weakest pupils in the better school attained equal results to the strongest pupils in the worse school. This could only be attributed to the performance of the schools themselves.

These conclusions are contrary to established beliefs. They show that schools can make more of a difference than ability or background. Bad schools fail all children irrespectively.

Since the recent Tory reforms, evidence shows an improvement at GCSE and A-level of some 15 per cent. But further improvements are still necessary, and demand a system that drives schools towards increasing achievement, creating permanent pressure for quality. The introduction of league tables has been a major step in the right direction. The Government yesterday announced new league tables which will show how schools are improving over time.

If we establish state education as an excuse-free zone, it will be the first step towards dramatically improving the system that serves most of our children. However, there are two limitations on progress. First, league tables are imperfect. They need to take into account children's capabilities. Second, the concept of the money "following" the child falters, because of the difficulty of choosing or transferring between schools.

Having weaker pupils from less favourable backgrounds is sometimes used as an excuse for poor schooling, and low teacher expectations lead to low pupil performance. Socially engineered adjustments to performance tables simply reinforce these low expectations for all time. What is needed is a clear, standardised performance measure that allows no excuses.

The straightforward way is to compare the achievements of children against the rest of the population when they enter school, and do the same when they leave. We can divide the population into 100 categories. The strongest 1 per cent would be rated at the 100th percentile, the average at the 50th and the weakest at the first. Using the 11- and 16-year test scores we can obtain a before and after picture for secondary schools.

Such an approach would clearly identify schools that were excelling, maintaining average expectations, or failing.

An example of each is shown in the second table (below).

The schools are ranked A, B and C on the basis of raw results in the first column. Each school is in a different catchment area, however, with pupils of different backgrounds. This shows up clearly in the grading of the intakes.

However, school A's pupils have dropped from the 75th percentile to the 69th.

School C has lifted its pupils from the 15th percentile to the 25th. It is clear that school C has performed remarkably well with initially weaker pupils.

This method allows us to classify all schools as A (for average) grade, or as above or below average in performance (A+10 and A-6 in the table below).

This system could be refined to show relative performance in mathematics, English and science, which are all measured at 11. This means that we could not only assess schools, we could assess individual departments. Once you establish the schools which are really succeeding, and those which are actually under-achieving, it is easy to decide where to devote resources and send children, which schools to emulate, and in which schools to train teachers.

In each region of the country a small number of "Star Schools" could be nominated to receive additional funding to take on a higher than average number of student teachers, so their methods could be disseminated in the best method of all - by practitioners. Additionally, if a failed school had to be closed and restarted (normally a better option than a takeover) the nearest appropriate Star School could supervise the process.

The next step in making this information useful is to allow parental choice to be effective in reinforcing success and eliminating failure. The Audit Commission, in its report Trading Places, argues: "There is a need to cope with success by enabling successful schools to expand and manage failure by identifying, intervening in and sometimes closing schools in difficulty."

Between 1996 and 2004, the secondary school population will grow by 12 per cent. Even if we only channel this increase into the best schools, this would improve the average school performance dramatically. Such a transformation would happen very easily if parents were really allowed the freedom to choose the best schools. That most LEAs are not doing this is demonstrated by the 35 per cent increase in appeals over their admissions policies between 1992 and 1995.

What is more, weaker schools are more expensive to run, often dramatically so. Closure of the worst and replacement with the best could save money. The technology exists speedily to construct new buildings in good schools and to cope with extra administration. All that is needed is the political will and mechanisms for change. We need to create spare capacity in successful schools and to be ruthless with those who are failing. In the words of the Audit Commission: "Until such schools close or recover, their pupils suffer an unacceptably low quality of education."

After a short time, radical use of real performance data will save money and improve quality. In addition, the Audit Commission assessed that if 40 per cent of excess school capacity were closed, this would release some pounds 100m a year, which could then "follow the child" to better schools.

If we were able to assess the achievements of our schools in an objective and sensible way, it would be ridiculous to perpetuate educational failings by letting bad schools carry on instead of reallocating resources (and pupils) into good and successful schools. To fail to do so would be a betrayal of our children.

The writer is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden. This article is an extract from a book to be published early next year.

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