That’s easy isn’t it…


The old chestnut-what makes a school successful -has been subject to countless studies.

Some are rather more illuminating than others. Certainly, a good Head and   having control of your intake helps, as does offloading badly behaved and  even poorly  performing pupils, and  don’t forget  poorly performing teachers  too( if you are allowed which in state schools, more often than not, you aren’t).

And of course school autonomy,  freed from the interventions of  meddlesome politicians and bureaucrats.

One factor, of course, that stands out in studies is the need  for a good Head , and  clear leadership, and not just from the SMT but  throughout a school. All staff  need to believe in what the school is doing and where it is  going.The vision thing.

Clear school leadership is personified by Catherine Myers. She is  Executive Head of Bishop Challoners school , a   successful state school  wrapped  up in a  Federation, that  puts  to shame  some,   in fact rather too many, of its peer schools, with similarly  disadvantaged intakes .

The Times profiled Myers last  week. It pointed out that nearly 90 per cent of BC girls obtain five GCSEs at grades A-C, and that the school is in the top 2 per cent of state secondaries.  A level of performance achieved despite the fact that more than half the pupils receive free school meals, 27 per cent have special needs, and they speak a total of 73 mother tongues.

It would be churlish, of course, to quibble over the Times performance figures for the school.   They appear to relate to the original pre-federated girls school. If, instead ,you look at the league tables for 2009 they show that 47% of the girls, and 42% of the boys, at the Federated  Bishop Challoners  school achieved 5 A-C grades including Maths and English. Quibbling or not, the figures still represent a noticeable achievement, particularly given the deprived intakes of these schools.

Myers is shortly to retire. She will be greatly missed.  She oversaw the schools transformation into the Federation, comprising a girls’ school, a boys’ school, the sixth-form college and the community programmes, with 1,700 pupils and 354 staff. In effect, she formed a system that the Government now uses to save failing schools.  So, what is the Myers secret for success and is it replicable? The Times made a list:

1. Educate girls and boys separately. It’s not just girls that do better in single-sex schools. “That’s an assumption that is generally made, but if boys have teaching geared towards them, they will achieve.”

2. Let them do it their own way, as long as they do it. Encourage pupils to analyse and develop their own style of learning (eg, last-minute, in groups). “Children should learn what they like and like what they learn,” says Myers.

3. Don’t see vocational subjects as second best — they are not. Think beyond the British school tradition, to the more vocational Scandinavian model. “As a mother I know that if you spend half your life making them do what they don’t want to do, you only make your life difficult. Everyone should leave school qualified for something.”

4. Set targets. Try not to compare your child to others — but set individual targets that will stretch his or her particular abilities. Respond quickly and collaboratively if the targets are not being met.

5. Get respect by giving it. “You have to like children and believe that they can achieve”.

This looks at first glance great. Almost motherhood and apple pie.  High expectations of pupils, setting personalized targets for them and so on.  But then one thinks a bit and  begins to have some doubts. Sure, vocational subjects should not be regarded as second best and it is generally good to invoke the Swedish model, but we are some way from  applying that  model here or  for that matter  offering their vocational  qualifications , so it  is hard to work out how this is all  relevant to Bishop Challoners and Myers secret to success .  We know for instance that some schools here use vocational qualifications (ours not Swedens) to inflate their league table positions with too many lacking rigour. Indeed, an expert witness in a recent Select Committee hearing claimed that a vast majority of state schools are now “eagerly eyeing up BTECs-vocational qualification equivalents to GCSEs-as being far more beneficial for them, because they are easier in terms of grade equivalents.” Is this really what we want from our schools?  And, what about separating the sexes, and single sex schools?  There are, of course, excellent single-sex schools and excellent co-educational schools in both sectors. The only safe conclusion though to draw, based on the evidence currently available, is that they are excellent for reasons other than that they separate, or bring together, the sexes for their education. As Professor Alan Smithers has astutely observed “The paradox of single-sex and co-education is that the beliefs are so strong and the evidence is so weak.”

And as for letting pupils to  ‘ do it their own way’ sounds , on the face of it, like a recipe for chaos,  a reversion back to,  perhaps,  the dreaded   ‘discovery’ learning philosophy . One strongly suspects that pupils at the school are told very clearly what to do by their teachers. And are not, on an average school day, busily finding themselves and exploring learning styles that best suit them, with their teacher and their peers keen to accommodate them. And we won’t get started into the merits and demerits of truly large schools. That Myers is a successful Head and leader is beyond doubt. She deserves huge credit for what she has achieved throughout her professional life.  But whether others can replicate her success, based on what she believes are the key elements that drove her success, and whether she has discovered a paradigm that can deliver systemic transformation, well, that’s another matter.

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