Jayne Dowle: Panic-stricken policies won’t help our schools

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DON’T believe everything you read in the papers. The latest official figures show that the number of schools in England and Wales failing to equip pupils with the most basic of qualifications has doubled. At more than one in 10 of our state secondary schools, less than 40 per cent of pupils gained at least five C grades at GCSE level.

It’s a shock figure. What will happen to all those youngsters now? Thrown on the scrap-heap before they have even had a chance to get started. Obviously, it’s cause for concern. I know. I’m a parent. My son is in Year Eight at an academy. When it opened, it was hailed as a flagship establishment. Then last year, Ofsted gave his school an absolutely damning report. The standards in public exams had dropped. There was bullying, fighting and general insubordination. Inspectors noted a worrying lack of respect for teachers.

Every parent I knew was up in arms. Some threatened to go to the school and have it out with the headteacher. Then the headteacher left, and a series of “executive heads” were brought in to try and straighten things out. It has been a tough time all round. Yet despite the official condemnation of the school, my son has thrived. This is particularly pleasing for him because he struggled at primary school. And this is a tale I hear all the time. Despite the public approbation the school has suffered, I’ve yet to hear a parent complain that the school itself is letting down their child. At parents’ evening recently, the attitude was so positive you could feel it bouncing off the walls.

That’s why I say, don’t believe all you read. Just because a school falls into the “terrible GCSE results” category doesn’t mean it is a terrible school for your child. And again, as I know, when a school is on the slide and Ofsted come down hard, every teacher in that school has to come up to the mark or face the door. Every resource will be thrown at meeting the demands of the inspectors. Discipline and behaviour will be overhauled. In Jack’s case, even the school day will be entirely reorganised in order to focus the attention of the pupils on learning instead of losing concentration in the longeurs of the afternoon. If your child is progressing to the best of their ability, why get caught up in the hysteria? I know it’s tough to stand back, yet I seriously believe that it is worth keeping a close eye while taking the long view.

Also, there are two viable and statistical reasons for these latest results. The Government has clamped down on schools entering pupils earlier than Year 11 for public exams. In the past, an exam could be re-taken if the first result wasn’t quite up to scratch. Now one result counts and that’s that. Plus, there has been a move away from coursework and ongoing exams to focus on the final reckoning. And the value of vocational qualifications has been overhauled. Previously, these could be equal to more than one GCSE. Many have been scrapped, and those that remain are on a par with other qualifications.

So this is further evidence about why there is no need to panic – just yet. However, this does not mean that we can kick back and be complacent. The words “turbulent” and “volatile” are being used to describe these results. And those are not really words we want to associate with the education of our children.

It is tempting to put all the blame at the door of the coalition Government and the obsessive tendencies of the previous Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who set about picking apart the state school system with a reforming zeal that made him Public Enemy Number One in every staff room.

However, in his defence, I think it is fair to say that education has been in turmoil since New Labour made it an article of faith to overhaul everything from nursery care to targets for university entrance. Every year, in fact, make that every month, the goalposts have shifted. No wonder teachers are so disillusioned. No wonder parents are frustrated. And no wonder too many of our children disengage at school. Caught up in the trauma since they were three years old, they are like shell-shocked victims of modern warfare. That it should eventually come to these awful GCSE figures is no surprise, really.

I’d say then that instead of fuelling further panic-stricken reforms, we should draw a line in the sand. Onwards and upwards and all that.

From now on, those in charge of making and shaping educational policy should concentrate all their efforts on ensuring that the maximum amount of young people take public examinations when they are ready for them, at the age of 16. And those in charge should also ensure that these candidates focus on achieving a good standard of all-round education which will equip them properly for the future, whether that is university, further training, or a job. It’s as simple as that, really. And it’s the very least our children deserve.