Is your school polluted, and how would you know?

A Science Test for school leaders

This may seem like a highly unusual question to ask about a school and certainly one you would not expect your friendly Challenge Adviser to ask! However, when thinking about the performance of free school meal children this is a highly relevant question... Let me explain.

In the natural environment any kind of toxic pollutant can be measured directly, the presence or absence of certain living organisms called indicator species can also act as an indicator to the amount of pollution in the given environment. For example, water pollution caused by the discharge of harmful substances into rivers, lakes and seas can have a direct impact on the aquatic invertebrate that are and able to survive in this polluted water. So their presence or indeed absence indicates the extent to which a body of water is polluted i.e. how toxic is that pond? The presence of mayfly larvae, indicates that the level of water pollution is very low as these creatures cannot live in highly toxic water. Science lesson aside, what has this got to do with how polluted your school is?

In much the same way, eFSM pupils are the indicator species within a school environment. Why? Typically these children regardless of how intelligent or talented they are tend to be; less well resourced; have less support from home; have lower self-esteem; often they deselect from curriculum experiences offered to them due to monetary issues; make slower progress than their peers; are three times more likely not to attend school or indeed be excluded. Because of this these children rely more heavily on the provision they receive in school than their peers. Put quite simply if they don’t get it from school where will they actually get it from? Whilst other children can still perform well even if standards of teaching are inadequate as they have support from home, eFSM pupils in contrast will more than likely fail.

Therefore, if the performance of free school meal pupils is below national expectations, we must as leaders ask ourselves some challenging questions about the state of the ethos and culture within our organisation. It could be that elements of our practice or our provision are actually polluting the school environment.

How do schools often deal with this toxicity? Typically, they provide intervention for those eFSM pupils and whilst this may have a positive impact in the short-term, this may well not actually be addressing the real issue. In much the same way as trying to save the mayfly larvae through intervention, we will ultimately fail if we do not deal with the source that is polluting the water. Likewise in a school, you cannot improve the quality of teaching by providing intervention with additional learning support assistants.

So as school leaders with the responsibility for ensuring that our school environments are healthy and free of toxins we could ask ourselves the following key questions to improve the outcomes for eFSM pupils.

  1. Does my school have a clear vision? Is everyone working towards a common goal that is learner focused?
  2. Do all staff have equally high expectations and a shared language to discuss what works?
  3. Is leadership strong and distributed? Do staff challenge misconceptions and low aspirations across the organisation?
  4. Does our curriculum consider the needs of the most vulnerable learners? Is it enriching learning centred, allowing for problem-solving and building resilience or are we just teaching children to pass exams?
  5. Do we offer a broad range of authentic learning experiences to all children including those eFSM pupils ... school trips, residential visits, theatre visits are all the more important to those children are not provided with these experiences at home?
  6. Do we use the pupil development grant to the best of our ability? Does the school have a clear rationale for its allocation based on the contextual need of eFSM learners? Are success criteria clear and measurable?
  7. Are our assessment practices across the organisation rigorous and forensic? Are we clear of the headline figures for those eFSM pupils?
  8. Are our strategies for raising the attainment of eFSM pupils based on examples of research such as the education endowment foundation?
  9. Are we developing pedagogy for closing the attainment gap? In other words is professional learning empowering our teachers to create innovative and engaging lessons? Do staff have a clear understanding of the principles of coaching and dialogic teaching rather than the old-fashioned chalk and talk?
  10. And perhaps most importantly is this ethos visible and valued?

That concludes our bite-sized science lesson for the day. Nevertheless, this leaves us with some homework and preparation for the coming academic year. As school leaders please consider the following exam question.

What effect does your leadership and its subsequent activities have on the environment your school?

Please discuss.

Huw Duggan

Huw Duggan

Strategic Adviser for Closing the Gap at Central South Consortium
Huw Duggan
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