The Education Matters column with Dennis Richards

The pressure on students and teachers has been has been ramped up again.
The pressure on students and teachers has been has been ramped up again.

On your marks! Get set! Go! The new school year has begun in earnest this week. It’s the “on your marks” bit of the starter’s traditional routine which will dominate the early discussion and meetings in our schools. The A Level and GCSE days have been and gone for another year.

The pages of this newspaper have featured head teachers trying hard to find something fresh to say and at the same time, to cast their own school’s performance in the best possible light. It’s an annual ritual I do not miss in the slightest.

If Jose Mourinho can’t solve the dilemma of finding something meaningful to say on his club’s performance on £Zillion million a year, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I trust readers are now familiar with the GCSE shift from letters to numbers. 9 is the top grade and is harder to achieve than the old A* star. The pressure on students and teachers has been ramped up again.

But sadly this year the real bombshell in the educational news this month has been the devastating discovery that 1 in 4 teenage girls has self-harmed.

Boys are not exempt either. This is an area where “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. Inevitably, however, low self-esteem, allied to stress will be in there somewhere. They are teenagers after all. The recognition that mental health is as significant for our students’ development as physical wellbeing is an encouraging first step.

The second step is the urgent need for meaningful research on the impact of the technological revolution. We are told that youngsters can often spend between seven and eight hours a day using social media.

Bullying and intimidation on line are rife.

The crucial next step will have to come from OFSTED. Only those who work in schools know what it is like to be subject to an OFSTED inspection.

There are at last some encouraging signs that the new Framework for Inspection (due in September 2019) is going to recognise the corrosive effects on schools, and consequently the students, of a fierce unforgiving and uncompromising focus on examination data.

Amanda Spielman, her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, is reported to have said that inspection should “ask a different question. We want to know HOW schools are achieving a good education, not just what the results are”. The implication of her words is that schools are “gaming the system”.

Of course they are. “Off-rolling” tricky students, cancelling Performing Arts to focus on English and Maths with endless extra revision classes are common-place.

The early signs are not particularly promising. It has already been announced that the 4-grade system will not change. Head teachers live in dread. They speak in hushed tones. The language is reminiscent of either Emergency Ward 10 or the Battle of Britain. “Have you heard that Mary has gone into RI at Tonnington High?”. Thankfully she’s not in intensive care at the local Infirmary. But she has been told her school “requires improvement”. Meanwhile Jim has gone down in flames at Stinksville Academy.

Only “special measures” can set Jim on the path to recovery.

Some aspects are reassuringly the same depending on your view. Modern Languages entries at GCSE and A Level continue to go down the plughole. What is it about the British and Foreign Languages? Patrick Kidd in the Times argued that it’s a relationship based on trust and understanding.

They don’t trust us and we don’t understand them.

Just like schools and OFSTED.