Chiswick School Head Responds To Proposed GCSE Changes

Tony Ryan says eliminating coursework does not necessarily add academic rigour

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I should perhaps start by clearly stating that we fully support The Education Secretary’s drive to improve standards in our schools. Chiswick is perhaps a good example of a school that for various reasons has historically struggled to get the best from its staff and students. By refocusing on a clear path to provide the very best for our students within every decision made at the school, we have risen to an Ofsted judgment of ‘good’ last year, and we are confident that we are fast approaching outstanding….or as we prefer to reference this status at Chiswick ‘world class’.

The difference between a school ‘requiring improvement’ and a ‘good’ school can be objectively measured in outcomes, well planned and delivered lessons, a strong emphasis on behaviour for learning, regular marking and feedback to students on how to make stepped improvement, effective presentation and use of data to make sure that no student is forgotten and of course decisive leadership with a clear and well communicated vision for school improvement.

There are of course also subjective elements to be considered when judging school effectiveness: Are the students happy attending the school? Do they have a sense of ownership, value and self-worth? Are students aspirational and well-informed about what they can do academically, socially and professionally? All of these harder to measure attributes, are of equal importance when providing a rounded, holistic educational experience; they should not be lost in the journey.

I would suggest that the difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ comes in the detail. We are now focusing on the minutiae to ‘fine tune’ every area of the school in order to achieve maximum gain for our students. Innovation has its place in this journey. As the school grows in confidence, it is happy to lead in areas where previously it waited for others to step forward.

I firmly believe that Chiswick students are gaining year-on-year improvement as we are focused on the above and are constantly seeking to improve; it should also be noted that our students have a critical role to play here and cannot be passengers in this journey of improvement. It is somewhat disingenuous to them, to openly suggest that the exam system that they are working within is broken and valueless; I would suggest that is simply not the case.

Change can be good and we openly embrace change at Chiswick, but any change must be carefully thought through and should lead to clearly defined improvement. The pace of change being thrust from government to schools at the moment is unprecedented. We will cope with it; that’s what we are paid for as school leaders, but we need time to embed one initiative before the next one is announced, normally with unrealistically tight deadlines.

I don’t believe that I know a single secondary headteacher who is against the idea of revision of our examination system. The modular culture has got out of hand with the only winner here the exam boards that make larger profits each year from a system of constant retakes. All we ask is that as experts working with this day by day, we are consulted and are allowed to shape any future system that may emerge, that thought is given to the progression that students make from primary school through to work or university and that any system implemented allows a clear aspiration route for students of all abilities and aptitudes.

Finally a thought on one of the most overused words uttered by government and OfSTED officials of late- ‘rigour’. I now shudder every time I hear this word used on radio or TV interviews. The Oxford Dictionary links this word educationally to thoughts of consistency and the elimination of ‘double standards’, yet it is recently often used to champion the acquisition of facts over skills and knowledge.

Making examinations one-off two hour tests and eliminating coursework from the assessment of GCSEs does not in itself add academic rigour. We look back to history to learn and to inform our future, reverting to a system where facts (not knowledge) are the only measure of any students worth will not provide universities or employers with the information and quality of lifelong learner that we need to move the economy and society forward.

Tony Ryan

Headteacher Chiswick School

June 13, 2013