“We either believe in comprehensive education or we don’t”

There has been much celebration in the local press this week about the newly published Ofsted report of one of our local secondary schools, Brentwood County High School (BCHS). The school has received an across the board “Good” rating having been judged as “Satisfactory” since 2001.

Much of the coverage centres on the acknowledgement within the report of the effect that the school’s head teacher, Mr Stephen Drew, has had on the school since his appointment eighteen months ago. The fact that he is already a figure recognised outside of education circles makes it an attractive press story, one paper has actually described him as a “”Showbiz” head”, but that should not detract from his achievement and that of his staff, governors, students and parents.

What interests me about the press coverage however, is that he has taken the opportunity within it to firmly state his commitment to comprehensive, inclusive education. I hope his profile means that people will listen and consider and adjust their behaviour locally and nationally.

The full article in the Brentwood Gazette is available here:

http://www.brentwoodgazette.co.uk/staff-good-behaviour-Stephen-Drew-s-success/story-20557128-detail/story.html

Mr Drew is quoted within the piece as follows:

Stephen Drew, Headteacher of Brentwood County High School

Stephen Drew, Headteacher of Brentwood County High School

“I want us to be the school parents look at and have total confidence in, knowing that we can deliver an education for their child whatever their child’s needs.

“That’s a massive thing but that’s what a proper comprehensive should be.

“We either believe in comprehensive education or we don’t – and I absolutely believe in the comprehensive education system.”

A statement that you would expect from any state school head wouldn’t you think? But, in the era of “parental choice” and promotion of competition between schools, it seems to be rarely expressed.

Sadly, the response of many schools to the current landscape, against a background of being judged via league tables, seems to have been to shrink their curriculum and seek to skew their intake to maximise their chances of a high “5 A-C”, “EBacc” or SATS test score.

Catering for local children “whatever their needs” should surely be the prerequisite for any school that receives state money? I passionately believe that it should and, since we formed our group two years ago, my view has hardened on the matter.

I believe this is currently not the case in Brentwood and beyond.

Policies of successive governments have eroded, accidentally or more deliberately, the comprehensive ideal and some are enthusiastically taking advantage of the loosening of, what should be, an obligation.

Frankly, I am sick and tired of the effect that this has on our communities.cropped-logo21

This is most obvious in the growing complexity of admissions policies in primaries and secondaries. I am aware that catchment policies are not perfect, but I fervently believe that no state school should have an admissions policy that prioritises anyone over the most local children to a school. I cannot accept that any school funded by the taxpayer should be acting as their own admissions authority or have a requirement for a supplementary information form.

Some selective behaviour is less obvious but is being revealed more frequently. It is not acceptable for a state funded school to suggest to a local parent that wants to send their child with special needs to your school that they “would be better catered for” elsewhere for example.

Against this backdrop we add in our local situation. Having opened in 2012, despite officially acknowledged surplus places in the area, the PR emanating from the local free school seems to be directly contradictory to serving the local community. Not a press release goes by without references to “stretching the most able” or professing to cater for those aiming to attend “Russell Group universities”.

The latter may be a pathetic attempt to establish a link to their sponsor the “Russell Education Trust” (to be absolutely clear, there isn’t one) but the underlying impression that they wish to convey is clear – we wish to cater for the most academic.

You may describe yourself as a “state funded independent school” but that means you are independent of local authority control not the state. You have an obligation to cater for those who fund you no matter their background or ability.

To properly support the comprehensive provision of education to all of our children we must strengthen the stake of the community in our schools. We should all have an interest in their successes, and the achievements of children of all abilities.

There is talk of an increased obligation to collaborate with neighbouring schools in the latest Labour Party policy review, the fact that it has been identified as an area that needs tackling should concern us all.

Locally there has been a joint initiative by Shenfield High and BCHS to provide some much needed vocational options to some of their pupils but this is a regrettably isolated example.

It should not need legislation to encourage the sharing of best practice but we must move away from a situation where schools “pull up the drawbridge” to others in the locality. It seems incredible that any should wish to increase their Pupil Admission Number (PAN) whilst there are vacancies elsewhere for example.

shenfield sportJust because my children attend certain schools it does not prevent me from taking an interest in others. I was delighted to visit Larchwood Primary recently and loved the atmosphere and commitment to inclusivity of its headteacher. I enjoy reading about primary schools visiting our secondaries for creative writing or science days. I am proud that one of our schools, Shenfield High, has recently been identified as one of the “Top 20 state schools for sport” in a recent magazine.

http://www.shenfield.essex.sch.uk/newsletter/2014/01/62.aspx

Sadly, the “parental choice” agenda appears to encourage insularity and misinformation that is of no benefit to children themselves. League tables exacerbate this nonsense as they seek to label “good” and “bad” schools based on raw statistics reported with no regard to intake or the prosperity of the locality.

It is in this context that we should view Mr Drew’s comments. I see it as a commitment to the whole community and a call to all of our schools to be as  inclusive as possible and to do their best to make sure all our young people are ready for the next stage in their lives. “Russell Group University” or otherwise.

I should now declare my interest as a BCHS parent and as a proud former pupil. I fully endorse the stance that the school has adopted and am a strong supporter of its inclusive policy. They are not alone in Brentwood but I would like this to be universal practice.

Some suggest that I am in the minority these days but I refer you to the Ofsted “Parent View” survey that accompanied the Inspection Report. 93% of respondents would recommend the school to other parents.

Whatever their background.

Parent View http://www.bchs.essex.sch.uk/64/latest-news/article/177/ofsted-visit-2014

 

Stephen Mayo

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