Sunday, 15 December 2013

Good school / Bad school: PISA, banding and how real life concerns tend to put everything in context

I've been a bit lax in my blogging duties of late but with so many exciting things happening in school I suppose it's understandable that time is occasionally short. Every time I write a blog I'm reminded how much I enjoy it, I spot a definite New Year's resolution in the making!

Over the last few weeks there have been some huge news stories that can't go without comment so I've dragged myself out of my blogging hibernation for a bit of a rant!

First came PISA, the press had been trailing this story for a while, so the furore was entirely predictable when news broke that Wales had slipped further down the international rankings with regards to performance in English, maths and science. LSP had been one of the school's that had taken part in the survey, pupil's were randomly selected by the OECD and they undertook a number of tests in the Spring term. I was extremely proud of the attitude every single one of our pupils exhibited towards the test and I know they took it very seriously. As a school we get no feedback on how those pupils did on that day. So we don't know how we contributed to the overall picture for Wales, given our record exam results this summer I would be hopeful that we did well.

As a result of our involvement I paid particular attention to the somewhat hysterical debate that ensued and have tried to draw a few conclusions.

Firstly although PISA does allow us to compare learner outcomes with those of other countries I think it is dangerous to extrapolate this into comparisons of entire education systems. To do so is reductionist and overly simplistic. For example though China tops the league tables, only schools in Shanghai took the tests and I wonder how some of the more rural areas would have fared?

A quote from China Daily shows the Chinese interpretation of PISA
"Chinese people rarely have any illusions about the quality of education in China, and the PISA results are often dismissed or laughed at. Critics of the existing education system have become increasingly vocal in calling attention to the entrenched problems, such as the lack of citizenship and life skills training, the emphasis on rote learning, and the long hours students spend studying compared to their international peers. Few people bask in the glory of Shanghai's PISA performance" 
in some other countries there is significantly more investment in the education system. Have a look at the article below the explains Canada's summer school programme. How well do you think Welsh learners would do with similar levels of investment?

Moving away from some of the geo political considerations there are also some real concerns for me at a local level. As a school we never find out how pupil's PISA results so there's no diagnostic purpose to the tests. Do we need to improve? what areas should we focus on? Are we making progress? We simply don't know. Ultimately PISA is misunderstood and misinterpreted by the media, politicians and sometimes (understandably) parents. It would seem that PISA has allowed individual schools and their teaching methods to be criticised. learners at LSP may have scored significantly above the Wales average but I simply don't know. As a head teacher I am very much focussed on improving the way our school is perceived locally and it seems to me that PISA could dangerously undermine confidence not just in the Welsh education system but in my school itself, yet I cannot contest this.

Finally I know this may seem like I'm stating the obvious but doing well in a PISA test isn't going to get you into college, or into university or get you a job. You don't get a certificate to say you've passed. I understand that as a head teacher I have a contribution to make to the overall health of the Welsh education system but my bread and butter is always going to be providing high quality teaching that allows pupils to pass external examinations at 16 and 18. EVERYTHING else takes second place to this.

So how do we move forward?

a) Prepare pupils for the test  - To some extent the Welsh government is already doing this. There has been talk of including more PISA type questions in examinations from 2015. I find this slightly ironic given the suggestion the secondary schools are often accused of gaming the system in order to improve banding positions etc. It now looks like our government is planning to do something similar on a global scale. Whatever the motivation such moves will undoubtedly have an impact.

b) Challenge the nature of the debate in the media - Everyone involved in education should be prepared to explain at length the part PISA plays within their own sphere of influence.  PISA does after all provide a wealth of useful information and I think many of us do believe that there should be an increased focus on maths and English. However we should stress that PISA is just one source of evidence amongst many. We should be using ALL the available sources of information to help us decide how to make progress.

Ultimately, Welsh government has decided that improving our international standing is a political game worth playing. This is understandable, but as PISA continues to be such a political hot potato with all the attached hoopla of national pride it's benefit will continue to be skewed. Think of it this way, does anyone think the Eurovision song contest is the best indicator of musical talent? Clearly some nations do and they seemed to have invested a huge amount effort into improving their standing. The winner of the Eurovision song contest in 2012 and 2013 were Scandinavian (ironically Scandinavian countries seem to be successful in all sorts of league tables!) Over the same period Adele sold over 20 million records. Actually in 2012, two of the three top selling albums globally were by British artists (Adele and One direction). If we asked the public to chose between Eurovision song contest winners and global chart toppers who do you think they would see as the most successful? Similarly with regards to education would a parent really want their child educated in China, with the long hours and loss of personal liberty that entail? I'll take Adele and UK education thanks.

Then as if this wasn't a big enough story we got hit with banding too!

Everyone at LSP was obviously delighted at the news that Lewis School Pengam had improved to band 3 according to the Welsh Government’s banding system for secondary schools. Such excellent progress was undoubtedly due to the huge amount of work and effort that pupils, parents and staff had put into improving the school over the last 18 months. What was particularly gratifying was the fact that that underlying data shows we were only one point away from being in band 2. This was all the more remarkable when you consider that this method of judging schools did not take into consideration how girls currently do much better than boys. An all boys school should, in theory, always suffer by comparison with mixed schools. The fact that we have outperformed almost half the mixed schools in Wales shows how far this school has come, LSP is a school that everyone can be extremely proud of, I know am. Even more exciting is that I know we will do even better in the future.

However surely parents are confused, if banding is supposed to give them an indication of how well their local school is doing, how must they feel when the system seems so volatile? What if a parent moved a child to a different local school as it was trumpeted as being band 1, only to see them crash to a band 4 the following year? Especially when such changes may be attributed to comparatively small changes in exam results. Perhaps we're victims of our own tendency to over celebrate success in our schools. The banding system was always likely to be volatile and a little less hubris may have been appropriate when we saw how our school's fared. In future a more balanced response to banding outcomes and a willingness to be transparent in discussions of the relative strengths and weaknesses of our schools may allow parents to make more informed decisions.

Also I'm a little concerned that Welsh Government allocates funding based on banding. Ferndale Community school is making all the headlines as it moved from band 5 to band 1. It is my old school and my nephews currently attend there, its improvement as a school has provoked a huge amount of community pride and quite rightly so. Sitting at the top of the Rhondda Valley it is obviously an area that sees high levels of social deprivation. As a school in band 5 or 4 it would have received significant financial support in its efforts to improve. Is the school any less deserving of that now? Another school in a less deprived community may have fallen down the league tables as result of a variety of factors, not least that although they have a high proportion of learners passing exams, their results have plateaued. I applaud the Welsh Governments decision to try to challenge the good school that is "coasting" but would that school really need additional resources and funding? Should that school receive funding over a school like Ferndale?

Again I believe that Welsh government is moving in the right direction and banding is providing useful information to school's and stimulating improvement. I know in our school we have seen a significant increase in the number of pupils passing both maths and English GCSE  at grade C and above, that is undoubtedly in part due to the increased significance Welsh government has put on schools achieving this threshold. Now its time to apply the same rigour to a much wider array of indicators that can evidence a school's success. Not that we ever needed reminding, but schools should not be seen as exam factories. The awful news from Pembroke this week highlighted how we deal with the most precious and fragile of things. The hopes, dreams and life chances of young people.  I would personally like to pass on my deepest condolences to everyone touched by that tragedy. Such a terrible thing is every parent and head teacher's worse nightmare. It should remind us that our core purpose in school is a moral one and it is not our job not to appease politicians by meeting their demands for improvements in silly season statistics or questionable international league tables. Our job is to care for and nurture every person who walks through the gate of our school. Our job is to give of our best in terms of supporting emotional wellbeing as well as academic standards. If we do this then our pupils will thrive and achieve. Ultimately these are the only quality indicators I'm concerned about, and that's why I couldn't be more proud of our school.

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