What makes a good school?

Thursday 25 September, 18.30 until 20.00, Pimlico Academy (Primary) Lupus Street, Pimlico, London, SW1V 3AT UK Satellite Events 2014

Tickets: £5 (£3 concessions), via Eventbrite.

Since 2010, the UK coalition government has aimed to increase the number of state schools that are at least ‘good’ if not ‘excellent’. The aspiration has been to ensure that all pupils are given an equal educational start in life. But achieving such goals will take time. Certainly, significant changes have been made: more than 50 per cent of state secondary schools are now academies and enjoy greater flexibility over staffing and the curriculum; a new network of teaching schools has been developed, with the aim of ensuring that the next generation of teachers are equipped with the skills they need to excel; the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) has had its role enhanced, with measures such as zero-notice inspections. 

Newspapers talk of the ‘London miracle’ and marvel at how a ‘”world city”, with all the social, economic and cultural challenges that come with that status, has defied the educational odds to transform its schools from the worst performing in Britain to among the very best globally’. And yet, many London parents are opting out of the state sector entirely, with 10 per cent paying for private education, while free schools are still seen as necessary to deal with the perception that many conventional schools are just not good enough. But what exactly is a good school?

Many parents and policy makers clearly feel that independent schools offer a model, but identifying what it is that parents consider to be good about private education, beyond the uncomfortable issue of selection, is a challenge. If anything, the private sector is characterised by its diversity of educational provision. Not all fee-paying parents access Eton or Wellington. Are they all better, per se, than state schools? Matters are no more straightforward when we look to high-performing parts of the state sector. Here, schools that are considered good are generally those that push their students to perform well in external examinations, but many commentators worry that successful state schools have become ‘exam factories’ that neglect the development of the whole child.

Indeed, while we all hope that state schools will inculcate both drive and cultural ambition, we also seem unable to agree over what this might mean in specific terms, as the debacle over the ubiquitous use of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in GCSE English suggests. Similarly, many believe that good schools require a strong ethos if they are to set clear moral boundaries for pupils. For this reason, state-funded faith schools are generally held to be good, or at least better, than their non-faith counterparts. But some also worry that strong religious convictions can easily tip into a zealotry that threatens liberal values, as recent events in Birmingham demonstrate. So what exactly is a good school? Is the current raft of policy reforms enabling more schools to become good just more bureaucratic posturing?

Or is it, as the TES says about the London turnabout, that ‘London’s results disprove the argument that macro policy makes little practical difference to micro classroom results’. Is the secret still all down to the standard of teaching in the classroom? Is Ofsted the key to success or a barrier? What can state schools learn from private schools and is there anything that the independent sector can learn for the state sector? Is a certain level of school failure a statistical and social inevitability, or is this simply the soft bigotry of low expectations? And what more could be done to ensure that more state schools in the future are excellent?

Emma Knights
chief executive, National Governors’ Association

Brian Lightman
general secretary, ASCL

Andrew Old
teacher; education blogger, Scenes from the Battleground

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Jo Saxton
chief executive, Future Academies

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Professor Dennis Hayes professor of education, University of Derby
Toby Marshall A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education
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