The 2001 Green Paper "Schools; building on success"

This paper sets out the Government's plans for the future of the education service. It ranges widely and one of the central ideas that underpins many of the proposals centre on the notion of taking action over both 'failing' and 'successful' schools.

The term 'successful school' occurs some 20 times in the document in the context of privatising schooling (paragraph 4.24), increasing autonomy of successful schools (Introduction, 4.26), shorter inspections (paragraph 1.8), spreading 'best practice', identifying 'advanced specialist schools' (paragraph 4.16), relocating pupils from 'failing schools' (paragraph 4.58), improving leadership (paragraph 5.32), etc. Thus, a great many of the proposals rely upon the identification of successful schools since it is these which are very much seen as the exemplars and agents for 'raising standards' generally.

Yet, nowhere in the paper is there any clear definition of a successful school. There are allusions to 'leadership qualities' and success in OFSTED inspections, but readers will search in vain for a clear description of how the government proposes to identify successful schools. So how, in practice, can we expect such schools to emerge?

Firstly, it is clear from all the research evidence that we cannot identify which schools are successful simply by studying raw 'league tables' of exam or test scores, and this is even accepted by government (see the Guidance from QCA (now known as Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, QDCA) on interpreting school and pupil performance data). Nor can we use OFSTED evidence with any confidence, partly because this also relies upon such league tables, and because there is a great deal of unreliability associated with such judgements (see an-inspector-calls ). Even 'value added' scores, were these available, would only generally identify a small percentage of very highly performing or very poorly performing schools. Moreover, the evidence shows that schools tend to be differentially effective, performing differently according to subject and the initial attainment of each child (see various papers at papers) so that the notion of a uniformly 'successful' or 'failing' school is generally untenable.

In fact, it is fairly clear from the way the Green Paper is written that what the government intends is that league tables and/or OFSTED reports will be used to identify success. If this is the case then certain consequences would seem to follow.

First, those schools with high intake attainments, often with socially more privileged pupils, will tend to be identified as successful. They will, as a result, receive more resources and their practices will tend to be the ones used as exemplars. It seems likely that this will increase social and academic segregation. Secondly, the rewards for performing well in league tables will increase thus adding to the pressures on schools to improve their positions with all the well known side effects that have been noted (see for example, Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F. and Stecher, B. M. (2000). What do test scores in Texas tell us? Education Policy Analysis Archives 8: 1-21. ).

The government should state clearly what it means by a 'successful' school and how it proposes to identify these. Unless it does so, much of this Green Paper has little substance and, worse still, suggests that the Government proposes to reinforce many of the negative effects of its current 'accountability' policies.

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