Southend’s inadequate schools

The front page headline of yesterday’s Southend Echo was “1 in 4 schools branded inadequate“. Those familiar with my writings and blog will know that education is one of my main passions and is something I have written about on several occasions. There is a temptation to think I have said all what needed saying but, when I see such a headline which, while not surprising is disappointing, I have to sit up and ask what needs to happen now? It also reinforces a point made more than once in the past by that same newspaper, making me think what has changed and what needs to change.

The schools in question were Cecil Jones College, Chase High School and Futures Community College, all recently rated by Ofsted as being “inadequate“, as well as Thomas More High School, where the comment was “requires improvement“. I’m not a big fan of Ofsted as recent blog posts show. I question the criteria it uses when making the judgement as to how good a school is and when there is recent evidence of it bowing to flawed politically correct ideology when making a decision to downgrade schools for not teaching well enough British values, whatever that means. However, for parents who these days are supposed to have a choice as to what school to send their children, knowing what Ofsted thinks about a particular school forms an important part in the decision making process.

Six years ago, I was faced with a decision which school to send my son to. Unless I played the faith card and selected what then was deemed a highly rated faith school, it was Hobson’s choice. The same three schools considered inadequate now were considered inadequate then and these were the three schools closest to where we lived. It was unlikely there were other reasonable options unless he managed to pass the 11-plus (that only 1 in 5 children managed to do) and got to go to one the grammar schools in the town, all of which were regarded by Ofsted as “excellent“. It was one of the reasons I wrote my “A Parents Guide to the 11-plus” although in the main local educationalists did not respond to the points I made until recently when they did pick up on some of the suggestions.

Reading again the inside page devoted to the story, a number of things struck me. Firstly, there were claims being made by those with responsibilities for schools that things are improving and that they, the powers that be, are taking the necessary steps to make it so. I hope that is the case but I hope said powers will allow a degree of scepticism as the same things were being said six years ago.

Secondly, there was the relationship between failing schools and poverty, something Ofsted picked up on. Sadly, the three inadequate schools also serve the most deprived areas of the town and there is something pernicious when it is all too evident that those children growing up in an impoverished environment are consigned to attending inadequate schools, thus adding to the rich poor divide.

Thirdly, there is the enigma that Southend shares with a minority of other education authorities. Not only does it have, according to Ofsted, four excellent grammar schools, but the majority of pupils in those schools are from out of town, even though they have to score higher in the 11-plus than the in-town children to get there. When the Echo reported that one new grammar school head had remarked on how she wanted to work with the local primary schools to get more Southend children into her school, my reaction was mixed: tell me the old, old story and good, let’s hope that will be the case.

I am mindful that when I criticise it should be done constructively. I like to think that, when I have written in the past, I have done that and my work, particularly when it comes to trying to empower the socially disadvantaged, is further evidence to the fact. I also do not wish to be too critical of the schools in question, especially when I don’t have all the facts and I do know that there are many teachers in them that are good and dedicated and many of their pupils that do well. But the point has been made; the challenge now is for all of us, which is to get those schools going from inadequate to excellent.

When it comes to choosing schools, the principles I adopted six years ago but did not quite articulate then still applies. We can never be entirely sure though how good a particular school truly is until we get to learn about the experiences of the children that attend that school which, given the horses for courses notion, vary. It is one reason why linking to the parent grapevine in order to find more about this or the other school becomes a pertinent activity. But here goes, these are the questions I would ask and would hope and expect any excellent school to answer in the affirmative, with proof, not just because it is the answer I am looking for but because it is the truth:

  1. Can I expect there to be consistently high academic standards?
  2. Can I expect good discipline to be consistently maintained?
  3. Can I expect good manners to be consistently taught and upheld?
  4. Will there be opportunities for my child to excel in all aspects?
  5. Can you assure me that my child will be happy at your school?
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