National challenge, or national disgrace?

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Divisive, demoralising and destructive - that’s the National Challenge, says headteacher Phil Karnavas, where the culture of target setting appears to undermine highly effective schools.

“All children deserve a great education and the support they need to get good qualifications and succeed in life. I know that this belief is what motivates people to become teachers and school leaders, and it is also the principle behind the National Challenge... Our goal is that at least 30 per cent of pupils in every secondary school will achieve five or more A*–C GCSEs including English and mathematics by 2011... The National Challenge will focus more attention, support and resources on your school. It is our intention to get behind your efforts to improve attainment, so that you can achieve your aim of accelerating improvement.”

This is how the National Challenge was announced to me. Great stuff. I have no issue with the intention of the National Challenge. Obviously, there are schools that will need help and support to do a better job. Obviously, underperformance must be tackled. Obviously, I accept the need for accountability. Obviously, I welcome increased resources. Obviously, we all want our children to do well.

However, my willing suspension of disbelief was shattered by the first phone call of the day. “How does it feel to be head of a failing school on the new national list of shame?” Groan.

I have reservations about the methodology by which underperformance is identified and some concerns about the way this initiative has been played out on the national stage. I have more reservations as information is released about the nature of the support and the amount of money actually finding its way to schools. A return to the language of ‘failing schools’ is profoundly upsetting, particularly because it will damage the children who the National Challenge is supposed to help. For the Government to argue that this presentation is down to press reporting is rather like the defendant in a court case found guilty of murdering their parents arguing for mitigation because they are an orphan.

There is something of a logical inconsistency lurking in the National Challenge. If one accepts that not every child (for whatever reason) will, or can, get five A* to C grades including maths and English, then one must also concede that if the children who can’t are concentrated (by whatever mechanism) into a few schools then it will be impossible for these schools to meet the benchmark of 30 per cent achieving five A* to C grades. In this scenario you can do what you want to them, for them or with them but it won’t make much difference in terms of this floor target. The only solution would be to spread these students evenly around all schools. Indeed, an admissions system (if one were possible) which genuinely distributed abilities across schools would also give a much better picture of where highly achieving schools really are.

For too long there has been confusion between attainment and achievement. I fear the National Challenge has reinforced this. It does not follow that because 50 per cent of the pupils at a school achieve five A* to C grades, including maths and English, then it is high-achieving; equally, it does not follow that a school that attains 25 per cent is low achieving. The Government has spent a lot of money and time developing a more sensible measure of performance: contextualised value added (CVA). Credibility could be restored immediately to the National Challenge by making greater reference to CVA.

Move the debate

We are constantly told ‘to love the data’. Indeed, this is mainly data that the Government has provided through RAISEonline and in partnership with the Family Fischer Trust (FFT). We really need to move this debate away from ‘failing schools’ and talk instead about ‘student performance’. This policy could still be absolutely brilliant and beyond any reservation if it used FFT B indicators as its key measure. By doing this, all the nation’s schools would be focused upon the performance of all the nation’s children. Education would then have made a massive move towards personalisation. (This measure could be used for 5A*–C and for 5A*–C including maths and English.)

This policy will cause an inevitable scramble for maths and English league table safety and this may well bring other unhelpful and unpleasant consequences. Inclusion will be compromised. Schools with many statemented students, looked-after children and young carers will now be placed at a major competitive disadvantage. Some schools will be reluctant to casually admit students if they are unlikely to get 5A*–C including maths and English, and this may be especially true of those borderline 30 per cent schools, since one or two students who perform less well could bring the school below the target.

Equally regrettably, some schools may be more inclined to consider the likelihood of students getting 5A*–C, including maths and English, in decisions pertaining to exclusion. The smaller the year group, the more significant this consideration may become. In National Challenge schools some students may come to feel that their school’s future depends upon them and be placed under unhelpful pressure. There will be a focus on borderline C/D maths and English students at the expense of those deemed less academically able. Thus, the policy of personalisation for all will be come  personalised cramming for some.

Just when genuine area-wide co-operation was really beginning to happen, this policy will reintroduce local dogfights as schools compete for the most able students. Internecine strife is another inevitable consequence of league tables. Maths and English teachers will be cautious about applying to work in schools that feature on ‘the national list of shame’ – compounding the problem in these schools. One response would be to inflate the salaries of English and, especially, maths teachers. This, and other tactics which would be deployed to improve results, would cause staffroom disquiet and damage morale. And, although this is trite, if Every Child Matters, why do children who can get maths and English now matter more?

The answer to this rests, apparently, in the assertion that GCSE maths and English will enable students to better meet the challenges of the 21st century. It remains unclear to me why GCSE maths and English, as academic qualifications, are regarded as the only way of preparing students for this challenge. If other level 2 qualifications, such as numeracy and communication, were also used then the argument would be more persuasive. This would also have the advantage of making more students feel successful, since more would achieve this different, but equal, qualification. It is a bit simplistic but how many people over the age of 25 ever use a quadratic equation?

Another significant reservation I have about this National Challenge is the number of students who will be labelled as failures by it. Children need to be valued, encouraged and nurtured. Above everything else their experiences at school, and of school, should build their confidence and enhance their self-esteem so that they can progress through life and achieve wonderful things in a multitude of different ways.

In this way they will really meet the challenges of the 21st century. In a system that labels schools ‘failures’ if they do not get 30 per cent 5A*–C, including maths and English, any child who does not get 5A*–C, including maths and English, is also necessarily labelled a ‘failure’.

The notion of floor targets itself is highly dubious and essentially arbitrary. It remains unclear what the education justification for 30 per cent is. Indeed, how far below 30 per cent does a school have to be before something happens to it? Does a school have to be at, or above, 30 per cent in 2011? What if a school reaches 30 per cent in 2011 then falls below it in 2012 or 2013? In fact, the floor target isn’t 30 per cent: it is 29.45 per cent, because this will get rounded up to 30 per cent, saving the statistically fortunate headteacher from membership of the ‘failing schools’ club. So some schools that are not on the ‘national list of shame’ may well only have one, two, three or four students more hitting the target than schools that are.

A significant number of National Challenge schools are on the national list of shame because of their context. My school operates in a fully selective authority and competes for students against three fee-paying schools, a boys’ grammar school, a girls’ grammar school, a co-educational grammar school, a technology school with an aptitude test and a 15 per cent ‘grammar school’ entry, a Church of England school with selective entry criteria, and a Roman Catholic comprehensive. Many of the schools below the 30 per cent floor target will serve year groups whose previous attainment was very low (sometimes reinforced by selective education systems) and who need much intervention, in areas of relative socio-economic deprivation. In some cases their value added will be stunning. In some cases their work will be truly exceptional. Indeed, the heads of these schools, who should have been the greatest supporters of the National Challenge, are now the most morally outraged by it.


Put simply, the Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot accept that there is a link between poverty and attainment and then ignore this relationship as far as floor targets are concerned. Equally obviously, when schools are battered in the press and threatened with closure, it damages the parents’ confidence in those schools. This has a potentially catastrophic consequence in that it will make it even more difficult for schools to be the centre of their community – as envisaged by the Children’s Plan and expected in the extended schools agenda. The latter, too, is an excellent idea with massive potential for the future of the country and is beginning to take off. I am afraid that it will now become an unintended casualty of the National Challenge.

And if what we suspect is correct then the schools that are going to be turned into academies or National Challenge trusts have already been identified. If that is true, I see little reason for allowing a situation to arise where they are dragged through the mud. Indeed, a real miscalculation of this policy was that no list of schools needed to be published at all! The mechanisms already exist to help improve performance or support schools. It seems fairly obvious that approximately 200 schools face no threat at all, 200 will get supported above the target, and 200 are going to be closed, reopened or transformed. Where is the evidence that ‘naming and shaming’ will lead to the much trumpeted ‘world-class education system’?

A government with one foot in an electoral grave and the other on a bar of soap appears to have made a political, not educational, decision. I have the impression that this policy’s release was not accidentally coincidental with that of some new, headline-grabbing anti-terror legislation. On the evidence of just one year’s results, 638 schools have found themselves castigated for ‘failing’, on a ‘hit list’, ‘facing closure’ and on a ‘national list of shame’ – including some that had been judged among the highest-achieving in the country, congratulated by Jim Knight and celebrated at the annual awards of the Specialist Schools and Academies
Trust! I really believed that under a Labour government we had moved on from this type of nonsense.

Like many others, I look forward to results day. Even if the students’ results improve once again and change our position on the national list of shame, my views will stay the same. The National Challenge is a very badly handled and disappointing missed opportunity.

Phil Karnavas is headteacher of the federated Canterbury High and Beauherne Primary School and has spoken widely at conferences on workforce reform, curriculum development and community engagement.

Taken from Managing Schools Today

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