19 October 2018

We have had an excellent start to the new school year. We have welcomed Year 7 students from 37 different primary schools and Year 12 students from 18 different secondary schools. The majority of our Year 11 students have also made the step up to A level study at the school. They have settled in well and are offering a huge amount to the wider school; working hard in lessons and contributing to the school’s cultural life. We are now thinking carefully about transition for next year and students from Parkside, Shotton Hall and Wolsingham are all planning to spend time with our 6th form team. Our Maths department are also working on a project with local primary schools to boost confidence and we have been working with other secondary schools to share good practice. It is important that we engage with other schools and that we leave others with a positive impression of Durham Johnston. It is important that our students make a positive impact on others too.

The year started on a positive note, with our GCSE and A level students achieving excellent results, both in terms of both attainment and, more importantly, progress. Year 11 students’ average attainment was 5.69 (as a grade, approximately B+) and the year group’s progress score was +0.28. (If they had achieved their expected grades this would have been 0.0). In a similar way, our Y13 students achieved an average grade of B/B+ and progress of +0.22. We are hugely proud of the students for achieving such wonderful results and are currently working hard to provide same opportunities for our current students. I share this with you because I recently had the good fortune to be present when the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, spoke at the North East School’s Conference. The speech had many strengths and a number of key lines intended to generate media interest. She stated that:  “I don't know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect progress 8 score.”

Well, that’s obviously correct. I became a History teacher because I wanted students to be inspired by studying the past and to develop a lifelong love of the subject. I also think that students benefit enormously from a comprehensive education; the curriculum should be broad and balanced and students should choose what is best, or most appropriate. However, progress really does matter.

It matters particularly for those students with limited cultural opportunities and those that live in relative poverty. A comparison between the expendable wealth of the average person in the South East in comparison to the North East is testament to that. Academic progress is important for social mobility and we clearly live in a very unequal society. (https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk)  Educational opportunity is enormously important in this context and academic progress can change lives.   

Curriculum versus progress is obviously not an either or proposition, nor, I should add, was that suggested by Amanda Spielman. However, much of the coverage and discussion around the speech suggested that dichotomy.  In 2014 a similarly bizarre educational conversation emerged around ‘skills versus knowledge.’ I remember attending a conference when people argued, quite vociferously, that teaching knowledge was elitist and that teachers should prioritise skills. The debate always seemed very peculiar; knowledge, skills, curriculum, results and progress are all important and all interconnected. Ofsted can shuffle the pack and measure quality of education in a multitude of ways, but the fundamental reason that most people work in education is to help students to experience a range of subjects as possible and to make progress as individuals and as part of a wider school community. Ofsted don’t control the treasury purse strings, but it would be helpful if they were to use their laudable skill at generating media interest to argue for the increased funding needed in order for all schools to offer the broad and balanced curriculum that they believe to be important. Without that funding, subjects and teachers that provide breadth will remain vulnerable.

I would like to thank you for your continued support in the first 7 weeks of the year. We have appreciated your support regarding the school’s position on mobile phones and uniform. In a similar way, we are currently working closely with parents the importance of 100% attendance if at all possible. 95% appears to be a big number, but when applied to attendance it would mean 10 missed days during the school year. Sometimes absence is unavoidable and we would always support students and parents when that is the case. However, if students can be present, then they should always be present. Regular attendance is the foundation for individual progress and success.    

Have a good half-term.

Mr O’Sullivan