Wednesday, January 06, 2010

... And now we know why.

I was puzzled last winter by the apparent eagerness for many schools to close down at the slightest sign of bad weather.

This cold snap has once again led to thousands of schools closing across Britain. While in many cases the closure is logical and expected in many places, where the snow is not that bad, I have been surprised to see schools close anyway.

Many of us remember trudging to school as children in all weathers, indeed I can remember being forced to carry on playing outdoor sport in freezing conditions regardless, and one wonders where this relatively recent trend to close schools whenever their is bad weather comes from?

Cynical parents have suggested it is just an excuse to give staff the day off, others suspect it is a cost-saving measure to avoid putting the heating up!

Well part of the reason head teachers really are keener to close their schools than they used to be did eventually emerge today. During an interview on radio 4 this morning between Stephen Alambritis, chief spokesman of the Federation of Small Businesses, and Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, it emerged that some head teachers might have more than one eye on their attendance records when deciding about keeping their school open or not.

Pupil attendance records are a key Government target, and make up part of the performance tables that define a school heads record. A day in which hundreds of kids won't arrive at at school would be disastrous for this 'key performance indicator' - whereas if the school is closed by the head the attendances aren't counted for that day.

So head teachers have a strong incentive to do the absolute opposite of what the targets are supposed to achieve.

This is a classic case of unintended and undesirable consequences from badly drafted laws and poorly considered management targets for which our Government have become legendary.

Schools need targets, and parents are entitled to information about their schools performance, but the challenge is to make sure that the tail does not wag the dog.


Anonymous said...

As a serving deputy head who was involved in our decision to close our school on 2 of the 3 snow days this week, I can assure anyone who reads this that attendance targets were not raised once in the discussion I had with my head at 5.30 am each morning…and find it quite insuting that a prospective parliamentary candiate can make such a statement. When police are saying do not travel unless joruney is urgent, we make the decision to keep our kids safe…while we are very aware that childcare problems are likely to follow, if we are not able to guarantee the safety of all 980 of our kids – both en route and on site then we reluctantly have to shut.
I look forward to hearing this candidate’s comment when we have the first child killed as a result of travelling to school on a snow day where the head has had to bow to pressure from local business leaders to open a school in dangerous conditions to protect the econonmy.
These decisions are never taken lightly, and always with awareness of the repecrussions…but can we ever put economic considerations ahead of children’s safety? I hope not…but then I don’t have to make irresponsible comments in order to show how ‘tough’ I am on education to get elected!!!

Marcus Wood said...

It seems to me that you must have either not fully read or totally misunderstood what I have written.

Nowhere have I criticised teachers, for anything, nor have I been critical of heads who close their schools when the conditions make it right to do so. I did say that some parents have complained to me about the readiness of schools to close, which I am afraid is true and reflected in much of the press coverage of the last few days. They are wrong to do so as I thought my piece went on to illustrate.

My point has been solely to question whether or not the target culture of this (and previous) Governments is in fact hampering or unfairly influencing the decisions head teachers make to close a school, because if they are being judged on the unauthorised attendance level of their school they have a strong incentive to minimise this figure.

I have not claimed that it definitely is happening, and certainly not in Torbay; but that it certain circumstances it could. This point is at least partly acknowledged both by the DCSF and the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.

This is a fault of the target they are given, not the heads. Airline pilots specifically are not given targets to minimise the fuel they carry because it gives them a conflict of interest that *could* encourage risk-taking.

I have sought and received an assurance from Nick Gibb, the shadow minister for schools, that if he becomes Schools Minister after the next election he will look again at the way in which attendance is defined and measured by OFSTED to ensure that the focus is on truancy and not these kind of unavoidable absences.

I am not making populist comments but putting to the public a genuine issue that the elected politicians need to address.

how to ollie said...

Excellent post and writing style. Bookmarked.