A group of parents and grandparents are campaigning for a new secondary “free school” for Ongar. My instinctive reaction was to consider the potential effect on the schools in Brentwood were this to be successful.
When raising this on Twitter I was advised that the children of Ongar spend at least an hour a day travelling to and from secondary school and this was a chance to change that. Potential housing development in the medium to long term may also increase the numbers of students who could benefit.
The idea is to form a school with an intake of up to 120, the current intake of the four main primary schools in the parish is just short of that number. All are feeder schools for Brentwood County High School (BCHS) and two also feed into Shenfield High School (SHS).
In a recent radio programme, one of the government’s education spokesmen, Lord Hill, explained that, for him, the “free school” programme is essentially about “extending choice”. But by opening so many schools in an area that has surplus secondary school places is that really the case?
Having attended Open Days and Parent Tours during the past month, I was reassured to see how our established schools continue to offer a great range of courses and qualifications for the young people of Brentwood. They also collaborate to maintain that breadth post-GCSE to cater for a range of developing skills, by allowing students to attend from their neighbouring schools BCHS are able to offer A-level Law for example.
By working together, schools are able to resource courses outside the most popular subjects which they would not have enough students to afford individually. This is due to the funding model that dictates money is provided to schools by head of pupil. So by spreading pupils over a greater number of schools this becomes even more difficult. The problems of running a viable school with a small pupil roll were recognised in the 2009 Consultation that led to the closure of Sawyers Hall College.
Schools are currently most commonly measured on how many students passed 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. Last year the government decided to add Science, a language and History or Geography to create a new, more prescriptive target known as the English Baccalaureate. This will be reflected in league tables, so what subjects are schools likely to prioritise their income on?
A Department for Education report published this month has shown that 27% of schools in England have reduced the number of creative subjects they offer at GCSE already. 183 schools no longer offer Art.
So by expanding the number of schools in the town and reducing the numbers (and income) for each are we really expanding choice for our young people?
School social media
Recent Gazette coverage of the application of IT skills by the students of Shenfield St Mary’s may have surprised some readers. The school’s impressive “Digital Leaders” initiative acknowledges that so many children are more computer literate, and certainly more IT comfortable, than many of us parents. My own children can knock up a far more impressive Powerpoint presentation than I can and that includes my six year old.
St Mary’s (@StMarysCEVA) is just one of our schools that makes increasingly good use of social media, some of which has provided a really useful regular glimpse into daily school life whilst making choices for next year. @ShenfieldHigh has recently been launched on Twitter and @BCHSUpdates is another very active feed. Done responsibly, this sort of engagement shows a welcome willingness to engage with the wider community at a time when schools are increasingly only formally accountable to the Secretary of State.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has launched a legal challenge to exam regulator Ofqual’s decision to uphold this summer’s GCSE English results. Grade boundaries were altered after January’s papers were sat. Many who were predicted to receive Cs on January’s criteria received Ds in August.
In his Head Teacher’s talk at the St Martin’s School Open Evening, Mike O’Sullivan reported that the school had expected their A*-C results to be at least 5 per cent higher. BCHS have confirmed to me their results were similarly affected, SHS students sat their papers in January but Year 10 GCSE coursework will have been graded subject to the change too.
Brentwood’s GCSE results were impressive by national standards but some of our students have been harshly treated. No-one, including Ofqual or the government, denies that papers for the same exam received different grades depending on when they were sat. Whatever your view of the exam itself this cannot be fair.
I have signed e-petition 37620 on the direct.gov.uk website calling for a parliamentary inquiry into what is now known on Twitter as #GCSEfiasco. If you agree, I encourage you to do the same.