Biddenham’s Executive Principal Answers MP’s Criticisms

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

I have great respect and admiration for Richard Fuller; his intentions are good and yes, let’s enter a dialogue with him about the 2015 GCSE results, but has anyone noticed a strange silence at the centre of his pronouncements? In 2010 the great educational panacea of his government - Mr Gove’s silver bullet that would improve things at a stroke - was to make all schools into ‘Academies’, and allow them to become independent of the (largely fictitious) ‘control’ of local authorities. The solution was to create competitive private schools, funded by central government and let the ‘educational market’ drive up standards. Hidden in his recent narrative of failure and inadequacy is the fact that all but one of the secondary schools in Bedford that he criticises followed Mr Gove’s advice and have already become academies - with one just on the way to ‘conversion’. If I were an LA spokesperson, I would tell Mr Fuller to go and complain to the academies’ paymaster - central government - as these schools are now ‘free’ of LA ‘control’. Certainly, there is no independent evidence that the academies’ programme has had any positive effect on overall exam results nationally.          


Neither does he mention his government’s ‘new’ panacea, which is now ’chains’ or ‘groups’ of academies run, by-and-large, by commercial organisations that pay their CEOs huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to ‘pull things around’. The government complains about schools ‘gaming-the-system’ but this is exactly what many of the chains do; they distort the curriculum and teaching methods to hit ever-higher government exam targets; and all in the vain hope of matching the ‘12-hours-a-day’ Chinese’ schooling system, which only works at the cost of systematically robbing children of their young lives.  As a result, we have seen lengthened school days, multiple early exam entries, narrowed curriculum (forcing out art, dance, drama, music and sport) and the return of rote ‘drilling-and-killing’, and ‘teaching-to-the-test’. Increasingly,  the result of Mr Fuller’s ‘academies’ and ‘chains’ is not ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ or ‘improved performance’ but standardised ‘exam factories’, and research showing that UK children are among the most anxious and unhappy in Europe.


Last week’s front page article puts my own school, Biddenham - the last non-academy secondary school in the borough - ‘bottom of the pile’. But thing to recognise is that Mr Fuller’s own government knows that the ‘5 or more A*-C ’ benchmark that puts us there is a highly arbitrary way to measure how ‘good’ a school is; and tells you more about the class and ethnic composition of the student body than whether it is ‘effective’ or not.  Next year it is being replaced by ‘Progress 8’ - a new single measure showing how much progress students make in their best eight subjects across the five years of secondary schooling. By this new measure we would have come out at the national average as our students make good progress from a low start, and we would certainly not have been ‘bottom of the pile’.  Although it will be more difficult with this new measure to demonstrate progress across the three years of secondary schooling in the Bedford ‘upper school’ model - when compared to the five years of traditional secondary schooling elsewhere in the UK - it will be interesting to see how different the league tables look next year!   


But - as a school - Biddenham offers things the government doesn’t measure. We are an engine of multi-class and multi-cultural integration in the town; we are a vibrant, active and friendly community with a strong sporting and international emphasis, and our students tell us they are happy. We encourage them to aspire and ensure that they all progress on to learning programmes and jobs that are well suited to their talents - whether it is apprenticeships or Russell Group universities. And for those that don't quite reach the ‘5 or more’ benchmark, we run a successful one-year course in the sixth form to bring them up to standard for A level study. One of our recent Ofsted reports noted that the students say that ‘they love coming to school’. That is something that neither central government nor academy chains can ‘buy’ in the educational market place - a safe, happy, active childhood with a strong sense of belonging!


So, yes, let’s start a dialogue with Mr Fuller but let it begin with what makes a good school. I would put words like friendly, inclusive, inspiring, creative, character-forming and team-building alongside ‘exam passes’ in importance; and in case you think this lacks ambition for our students, come and talk to them at our Open Evening and - to name just one of many - make sure that you talk to Emily Cowley. She achieved 11A*s at GCSE and is one of the happiest and most characterful students I know.  In addition to her exam passes don't forget to ask her how well she performed in her school hockey, football, badminton, tennis, and netball teams last year, how well her charity cake sales are going at school, and how she fared in her recent adventure to Denmark!


Mike Berrill

Executive Principal - The Biddenham Campus Trust