Havelock Schmavelock

 On a Sunday I like to dip into the world of the common man. But while I’ll fight for the rights of the proletariat all week, I don’t necessarily want to mix with them in a physical way at the weekend – that’s my time after all. So instead I buy a tabloid newspaper. I have no loyalties, but prefer to pick at whim, avoiding Kerry Katona where possible.

And it was during one such grubby encounter that I came across a double page spread about Havelock Academy in the News of the World http://tinyurl.com/243muqy . The report and the figures included quite clearly show this to be a shining example of the potential effect academy status can have on a school.

The remarkable transformation of failing Havelock Comp – where three years ago four out of five pupils failed to notch up five decent GCSEs – came when tycoon David Ross decided to sponsor a school in his home town of Grimsby.

The founder of The Carphone Warehouse, along with his new headteacher Nicholas O’Sullivan – a former Dominican friar – took the comprehensive over and freed it from council control.

 . . . the implication being that council control (and a nasty Labour one at that) had previously been holding it back.  But is there any basis for this?

No-one can argue with the fact that results have indeed improved. A 20% improvement in a year has to be commended – but simple changes can have big repercussions at that end of the performance table. What is more interesting is whether this school merits such a puff, when many millions later three out of five pupils fail to get five ‘decent’ GCSEs.

Havelock Academy is, by any current measure, an underperforming school. Even now. It was inspected by Ofsted in January 2010 and judged to be ‘satisfactory’. This is not a vague, descriptive term – schools are awarded a rating from 1 to 4 – outstanding, good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory (and potentially in to special measures). ‘Satisfactory’ is not ‘good’ and is certainly not good enough.

But it can be hard for schools in deprived areas to get a good Ofsted rating, so let’s look at some other indicators. The best single statistic to judge a school by is its Contextual Value Added (CVA) – are the children improving as a result of the actions of the school against national yearly progress expectations taking account of a range of socio-economic factors. A score of 1000 means children are in line with expectation – which is fine. Anything above that means the school is adding value. Havelock has a CVA below 1000, even allowing for a best case scenario with a margin of error (CVA confidence interval)  http://tinyurl.com/2wxau8z . Their CVA is significantly negative. That’s bad. With 60% of children NOT getting 5 decent A-C grades at GCSE and a significantly negative CVA, a less fortunate school may have found itself with an unsatisfactory Ofsted.

Indeed, the ‘miraculous’ improvement at Havelock is not enough to put them in the top 100 most improved schools in the country on the last available figures http://tinyurl.com/36xupx4 .  Looking through the list there are very few academies cited – just lots of rapidly and sustainably improving schools, still under local council control, and in some cases in even less favourable circumstances (eg inner city boys’ schools in deprived areas).  These schools’ achievements have been made without the much vaunted ability to pay higher wages to teaching staff (who richly deserve it), or any of the other unique benefits academy status can allegedly bring. Looking through the figures it can be seen that improvements of the scale of Havelock’s are not as uncommon as might have been reasonably assumed from the coverage given.

I don’t have a problem with Havelock’s achievements per se – they have quite obviously made significant improvements and should feel duly proud of themselves. Look back in another three or four years and they may indeed be the pudding that provides the proof. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the News of the World have mis- or over favourably interpreted the school’s figures . I don’t look to the News of the World for a rigorous approach to editorial and comment. I was more surprised to see the provenance of the story – sure enough, there was Education Secretary, Michael Gove, singing the academy’s praises to the media http://tinyurl.com/3yqaw9j .

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, may not be the best person to assess children's needs.

Now, a cynical person might suggest that the only reason Havelock Academy are being singled out for such praise is that David Ross has donated more than £130,000 to the Conservative Party and is a key education adviser to them. Of course I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. And to be fair there is no evidence of this beyond coincidence. But the extrapolation from a set of still iffy results and an iffier Ofsted that this school shows the benefits of freedom from council control is a step too far.  The interpretation is rose-tinted and misleading. You don’t have to look too closely to see that the conclusions being drawn are inaccurate.

Havelock Academy may well have benefited from their academy status – but it does not provide evidence that academy status is the best, or indeed the only way to manage long-term, sustainable improvements in education.

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