Mossbourne Academy : the model for us all ?

Ah, Mossbourne. It’s time to talk about Mossbourne. After all, everyone else does. It is, without question, politicians’ favourite school for posing with children to underline both their fundamental humanity, and also their commitment to “rigour”, “standards”, “Wilshaw” and all the rest of the meaningless clichés which have come to replace any mature, evidence-based policy-making in education.

I have a connection with Mossbourne: early in my DFE career, I was a junior civil servant tasked with steering the forced closure of Hackney Downs School through judicial review. I don’t recall much (it was all a very long time ago), although I do recall that I was surreptitiously reading Bill Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There” in court, and actually laughed out loud at one point, which I hastily disguised as a cough to avoid the disapproval of the collected legal types. I can’t tell you much about what Hackney Downs School was like, although I think everyone can agree that it had developed a terrible reputation, whether deserved or not. Hackney Downs was, of course, the school deemed such a basket case that it had to be levelled, with Mossbourne rising magnificently from the ashes.

Of course, Mossbourne also continues to affect me now in different ways. It became the catch-all justification for academization; any doubts expressed by parents, staff or governors about becoming an academy would sooner or later end up being confronted with “look at Mossbourne”. Likewise it gave us Wilshaw, the unfunny straight man from a 1970s Saturday teatime comedy duo, currently masquerading as Chief-Inspector-cum-Clint-Eastwood’s-Lonesome-Cowboy. And of course, via Wilshaw, it gave us the final justification of Gove’s Back-To-The-1950s preferred style of school : teachers wear ties, everybody calls the boss “sir”, children stand up and chant like obedient citizens of North Korea, and the atmosphere in the corridors suggests that valium is being distributed in gaseous form through the air vents.

I did a data-crunch on Mossbourne last year using the 2012 stats, expecting to find the sort of tricks Harris use in terms of sifting out the locals to doctor the figures. However, it wasn’t in the same ballpark as Harris in terms of dodgy practises. In 2012 Mossbourne was a challenging school with a challenging demographic. It is worth noting that Mossbourne had fairly comfortably the least challenging student body of the local four secondary schools, but that didn’t mean it had an easy ride. No de facto grammar school here. I thought it looked fine.

So let’s have a look at the 2013 stats to see how they’ve held up.

2013 Inputs

Mossbourne’s intake is fairly similar to last year:

SEN : 12%

EAL : 39%

FSM : 29.9%

Mossbourne is oversubscribed, so you’d expect most of the kids from the nearest primaries to get in. The average figures across the nearest primaries is as follows :

SEN : 10.5%

EAL : 63.6%

FSM : 41.3%

SEN is representative of local primaries. But the figures for EAL and FSM suggest that Mossbourne is not taking a representative sample of those students from its community. This worries me a bit – the gulf in EAL is very large, and we saw it last year too compared to other local secondaries. So I looked at the figures for the nearest 3 secondaries too.

SEN : (1) 13% (2) 4% (3) 24.2%           …   average 13.7%

EAL : (1) 38.5% (2) 64.8% (3) 57.7%  …   average 53.7%

FSM : (1) 45.1% (2) 50.7% (3) 51.4% …   average 49%

The results seem pretty clear : Mossbourne are taking a representative number of SEN students, but far fewer EAL and FSM students than the local primaries produce, or than the other local secondaries admit. Mossbourne’s intake is now significantly more advantaged than the other schools in its community. I do worry a bit about the EAL statistic. Not least because the loathsome Toby Young’s West London Free School also has notably low figures for EAL admissions – so low his admissions system seems to be “apartheid”-based. Non-native speakers are one of the key groups to lower results in any type of school, according to the OECD’s PISA study. I very strongly suspect that West London Free School deliberately finds ways to exclude EAL students. I don’t know about Mossbourne – it may just be that they benefit from the fact that native speakers are more likely to be able to navigate the admissions system successfully than non-native speakers. The jury is still out.

In terms of prior achievement, the picture is predictable :

Lower Ability – Mossbourne (19%); average of nearest 3 secondaries (26%)

Middle Ability – Mossbourne (53%); avge (57.6%)

Upper Ability – Mossbourne (28%); avge (17%)

Mossbourne have a significantly lower proportion of low ability students than the other local secondaries, and a much higher proportion of more upper ability students. This is still not a grammar school, but if I was the head of one of the neighbouring schools, I might be gnashing my teeth every time a politician heaps more praise on Mossbourne’s achievements with disadvantaged students.

2013 Outcomes

Of course, the fact that Mossbourne is comparatively advantaged in its local area doesn’t make it an easy school. Those are still highish figures for disadvantaged students, and it’s what Mossbourne does with those students which really matters.

So what do Mossbourne’s locally advantaged, more-able cohort achieve ?

  • I’m impressed with their Ebacc, at 57%. That’s very high compared to many flagship academy chains (see Sutton Trust report on how chains use equivalents and avoid academic GCSEs to boost statistics). Indeed, it’s high nationally.
  • Their capped GCSE score is 345, which is also commendable.
  • Their best 8 value-added score is 1034, which is a good score.

All in all, I’d say Mossbourne’s results are pretty good considering their intake. They are undoubtedly achieving a lot with their students. Plaudits all round.

There’s always a big “But”…

Does this mean we should all bow to Wilshaw, start our classes chanting at the beginning of every lesson and embrace our inner 1920s cane-wielding disciplinarian ? Well, no. Dig around in the stats and you find various quirks. For example, politicians often make patronising statements about how astonishing it is that local Hackney children can get to Russell Group universities via Mossbourne, but actually, Mossbourne’s A-level record is not great in terms of value added: they record average figures (much worse than my own school, for example). I don’t think this necessarily means that they are bad at teaching A-level. I suspect rather it means that they are very good at drilling their students to the highest GCSE grades they can get, but A-Level is a different kettle of fish. With intensive effort, I can drill a not-very-able student to an A at GCSE, but not at A-level. Mossbourne’s very strong GCSE results thus hamper it for value-added at A-level, which are much tougher differentiating exams. I was also astonished to find that my own school was significantly better at adding value to low ability students.

There is, of course, a further sting in the tail. Mossbourne has been very useful to Gove and Wilshaw, as they claim it proves the efficacy of the usual right-wing mantra of harsh discipline, anachronistic uniforms, a 1950s grammar-school culture, the Cult of the Leader, and of course Wilshaw’s oft-cited insistence on not employing those lazy-arsed teachers who actually try to go home occasionally, or see their families at weekends. But for those who have stayed with me so far, and who may even have the DFE dataset open while they read, scroll right down to the bottom. To the bit labelled “Finance”. Here I’m going to use my school as a comparator. We have a more advantaged intake than Mossbourne, and we achieve better results overall, with almost identical value-added results at GCSE and much better value-added results at A-Level.

My school has 1,550 students. Mossbourne has 1350.

My school has 103 teachers and 22 TAs. Mossbourne has 121 teachers and 47 TAs.

My school has Pupil Teacher ratio of 15.8. The National Average is 15.5. Mossbourne’s is 13.6.

Despite having far fewer staff, average gross teacher salary in my school is £36k. National average is £38.5k. Mossbourne’s is £44.5k (don’t assume that’s what the Mossbourne teachers get paid – assume very high salaries for “leaders”).

Essentially, Mossbourne has a much, much larger per capita budget than my school, and than most other schools. It also (don’t forget) has a complete set of state-of-the-art new buildings. It also has national publicity which draws in the most aspirant parents locally, which accounts for its more advantaged, motivated and able intake than the local average. These are not small things.

Could it really be about money after all, and not the uniforms and saluting ? Yes, it could. Given the hugely advantageous budget Mossbourne has, it would be surprising if it wasn’t doing very well, which it is.

What the data doesn’t show is a school which has found the philosopher’s stone of education, as Gove, Wilshaw et al frequently claim. A theme I often return to is that schools are organic entities. They are not franchises of Costa Coffee, in which all factors can be replicated. One can’t simply say “this works here with these kids and these teachers, therefore it will work there with those kids and those teachers”. To do so suggests an almost sociopathic misunderstanding of humanity, especially adolescent humanity. It is one of the fundamental flaws of academy chains, who claim that by rendering everything uniform, all results will become the same (while secretly doing everything they can to change the intake, because they don’t believe their own bollocks about this!). The case of Mossbourne has provided a convenient justification for this imposition of a preferred style of teaching and school management, and has given Wilshaw all the justification he needs in his own rather unimaginative mind, to try to impose his own preferred style on every school in the country via Ofsted inspections. However, if Mossbourne proves anything, it seems to prove that there is a relationship between budget and outcomes, and that the Daily Mailesque ranting about discipline, “no excuses culture” and flogging staff, is a simple smokescreen of irrelevance.

It is a neat trick : pour huge amounts of cash into one exemplar school, helping it to push up results; obfuscate this fact with superficial fripperies and a loud-mouthed egomaniac headteacher; then cut budgets to other schools, while telling them that money is irrelevant, as the results are all about “proper” uniforms, academy status and high expectations. Another triumph of evidence-based policy-making.


35 thoughts on “Mossbourne Academy : the model for us all ?

  1. A head teacher friend of mine, leader of a successful academy, was taken on a visit to Mossbourne to see how it’s done and was appalled at what he witnessed: children moving silently between lessons, teachers castigated if they dared to engage in conversation or, heaven forfend, a little bit of banter, with the children. As a teacher I often found a social chat at break, or on the corridor at lesson change, was a good way to encourage good relationships and help with motivation and good behaviour. Very few teachers these days would feel comfortable with the ‘do what I say’ or ‘because I say so’ attitude. This was even dying out when I was in secondary school in the sixties, with just a few relics from the post-war era still getting by on bluster and shouting. As for the ‘mantra’ chanting, I doubt I could supervise this with a straight face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You may not like their procedures, but you are not a student from the inner city who wants to get their GCSE’s / A levels. Their approach certainly delivers results. You sound like a classic enemy of promise to me. GO MOSSBOURNE


      • With all due respect, your post simply sums up much of what is wrong with the education debate in this country. You came here with a belief that Mossbourne’s particular approach is something special, achieving astonishing results. You then read (maybe) an article which demonstrates that Mossbourne do fine, but nothing unique, considering their intake. And you leave a comment showing that your belief, having crashed up against contradictory evidence, has rejected that evidence in favour of the comfort blanket of unjustified faith.

        Until we start to embrace evidence as a core part of education policy-making, then we’re unlikely to be able to progress much.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Just to show how easy it is to wrongly judge someone based on a brief comment on a blog, I AM (or was) a student from the inner city (I even spent some time working with children in Hackney, so I know whereof I speak!) who got decent exam results partly because of the way my teachers treated me: respect, encouragement, compassion, understanding. Your repetition of Gove’s silly insult, ‘enemy of promise’, means nothing apart from indicating that you too think it’s appropriate to insult people who, as in my case, spent a career trying to help children overcome low personal and parental aspiration. I’m happy to read contrary evidence and take part in reasoned debate but your comment is neither reasoned nor evidenced. Go peddle your prejudices elsewhere!


  2. Reblogged this on Colin thinks ….. and commented:
    A good blogger – have read his/her comments on Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ and always found them sane. S/he now seems to have started a blog of his (or her?) own. One to follow, I think.


  3. Even the “left wing” press won’t touch Mossbourne. If you know someone that’s worked there the stories that you hear are unsettling. You could also throw in the cost of a Mossbourne uniform as another way to encourage student selection. Someone commented after visiting it that it was laid out like a panoptican.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My son went there for 6th form I’m not saying it’s the best school ever but it is a seriously fabulous school. The teachers would do anything to help you- if you couldn’t do your homework for example you were expected to track them down and get help before the deadline and they were expected to provide that help. And the atmosphere in class in sixth form was actually very informal. One teacher marked work ‘RTFQ’ (read the fucking question!) which I don’t suppose is an official Mossbourne marking code, but hey it made the point well!
    As for the fall in EAL and fsm, Hackney has always had a substantial middle class but recently property prices have risen ridiculously- us sharp elbowed middle classes know a good thing when we see it and are buying property near the school. The pembury estate kids get in (it’s next door to the school) but a stones throw away are roads and roads of Victorian terraced housing full of middle classes. Mossbourne aren’t cheating the system, the demographic is gentrifying. There are independent coffee shops, delis etc springing up al over hackney- it’s really getting quite posh.
    But whether it needs to be as strict as it is I don’t know. I wish someone would do some serious, non partisan research into disadvantaged schools in the 80%+ 5 A to C inc E&M club to see what it is that the rest if us could learn from. What is replicable across the mass of schools?
    One school it would really be worth looking into would be Bethnal Green Academy. They achieved 80% despite having a continuous influx on new arrivals into the school because due to a hopelessly out of date poor reputation they have hitherto had masses of spare places ( this year finally not the case). And they also do well with kids excluded elsewhere. And the atmosphere is firm but warm.


    • Hi Primary Prowess

      Thanks for your detailed comment. You’ll note that nowhere do I suggest Mossbourne is a poor school getting poor results. The thrust of my article is just that Mossbourne achieves similar results to other schools with similar intakes (in terms of ability), but with far more resources to do so. Yet despite the similarity in outcomes, other schools are often negatively compared by politicians who believe Mossbourne are doing something unique. I was not intending to suggest Mossbourne is a bad school, although I think a lot of its policies under Wilshaw were meaningless posturing, merely that it’s not a model which is either particularly better than other schools with similar intakes, or necessarily worthy of emulation.

      By the way, your example of the assistance A-level teachers provided for students struggling with homework/deadlines – I think that’s a good case in point. Certainly my school does that (it’s not a policy, it’s just normal teachers helping their students). In fact, I’d find it astonishing if a school were to ever act differently, such as turning students away or not providing help when asked. That’s not a Mossbourne-specific thing.

      Essentially, I take the view that despite politicians’ desire to label schools on their awful four-point scale, when you actually look at the inputs and the outcomes, there are very few significantly weak schools, and very few significantly great schools. The great majority of schools achieve pretty much what you’d expect given their student body. Unfortunately, the arbitrary four point scale allows politicians to suggest that if only all schools did X, or were owned and run by Y, then everything would be great. Mossbourne, in that regard, became a stick Ministers and Ofsted used to unfairly beat other schools, relying on nobody looking too closely at whether they were, in fact, achieving significantly more than other similar schools.

      Anyway, I hope Mossbourne continue to do whatever works for their students and wish them every success.


      • The trouble for parents is they usually have only one school to comment on and, if it did well by their child/children, they think it’s good (as Mossbourne apparently is though from what I’ve heard the the discipline is just ridiculous, although one hopes this wouldn’t be too obvious as a Sixth Former). When I saw your comments about teachers offering help, well, I’d find it astounding if any teachers anywhere told a student to get lost if they asked for help. As for the ‘rtfq’ comment, I used it myself (got it from a colleague) and I didn’t work in a fancy academy. I think ‘Disppointedidealist’ has already indicated why he/she thinks Mossbourne can afford the inflated salaries: they get more dosh! In the end, they’re a good school doing as well as they ought to, given their intake. What rankles is there are plenty of schools, academies and LA schools, up and down the country, doing the same with much less funding.


  5. Forgot to add re teachers salaries at Mossbourne I heard ( not sure how reliably) that while you will be worked into ground salaries of £70k are not uncommon for regular teachers. If so how they afford it I don’t know. But the person who told me this said teachers went there eyes wide open, worked ridiculous hours for lots of money for say 5 years- learning a lot along the way- and then left to go somewhere a bit less pressured, but a lot less well paid. Although the former mossbourne tag was a good selling point enabling promotion.


  6. I have heard complaints from teachers at other Hackney secondary schools that Mossbourne run a scam called the Big Year 7, whereby they accept more pupils than they have places for, allowing them to send difficult pupils to other local schools without freeing up places they’d be obliged to offer to pupils moving in the opposite direction.

    I don’t know if these allegations are true, but given similar questions around Harris Academies in Croydon I think pupil numbers by year, numbers moving in and out and destination schools should be a matter of public record.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Not sure if having mossbourne on your cv will do anything for your career other than raise eyebrows! If you want your children to have an army style education with any creativity and individuality stamped out of them then it is the school for you. I most definitely would not send my children there. It is true that it works for certain types of families who need that type of structure in their lives but it would definitely not work everywhere.


    • I think I too would favour a much more regimented regime if I was dealing with students with more behavioural challenges. However, in my experience such a rigid disciplinary approach is counter-productive for children who do not suffer from behavioural problems. I don’t actually have a problem with Mossbourne, or any school, using whatever measures it sees fit in order to best educate the students it has. My problem is when certain politicians and quangocrats assume that because Wilshaw believes it worked for him with a certain demographic in Mossbourne, it must therefore be the best approach for all students everywhere.


    • I don’t believe it’s a perfect school, but I have to disagree with the idea they have creativity stamped out of them. You’d think so with all the strict rules, but, credit where it’s due, the opposite seems to happen. I went to their end of year concert this year in the hackney empire. And I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Choirs and orchestras that are better then some I’ve paid money to see, students doing professional standard stand up… Plus they have an incredible art department, especially in 6th form. I think this is an excellent post, but from the person I know who works there, they’re just a sick of the way they’re used by politicians as everyone else is, and don’t really recognise a lot of the things the media say about them.


  8. My children are in another academy but one that takes a similar approach to Mossbourne on discipline. They love the school and are motivated and thriving. Children who do not have “behavioural problems” gain as much as anyone else from a calm and structured environment in which disruptive behaviour is not tolerated. What I think people often don’t understand is that the strict discipline is used as a structure that enables really interesting and creative teaching in the classroom. This isn’t Victorian style teaching, far from it. Some teachers have commented to me that they try things out with the kids and give them freedom and responsibility in classes in ways that would not have been possible in other schools they have taught in. I don’t for a minute think all schools should take the same approach but I think people shouldn’t dismiss the approach without understanding it.

    (Excellent and interesting article, by the way! My post is really in response to some of the other comments.)


  9. It also has a very high exclusion/’managed move’ rate, which means that pupils whose behaviour isn’t up to mossbourne standards usually end up in other schools in the borough or further afield. Almost any school would be able to do well if they had Mossbourne’s exclusion rate. My son went up to secondary school the year MB opened and by the end of GCSEs they had got rid of (by one way or another) about 4 times as many pupils as my son’s school.

    It would be good to have some decent research done properly tracking exclusions etc from Academies and the impact on receiving schools.


  10. Excellent article – thanks.
    It might be worth checking again as they changed the admission policy the year before last by introducing a lottery aspect. I think this was a deliberate attempt to shake up the intake. I know of a few families who have got in via the lottery and they haven’t been the sort of people who can afford to buy houses in catchments as a way into good schools.
    I can back up the comments about the teaching. Much of the teaching there would be dismissed as “trendy” by Gove and his friends if they witnessed it in a bog standard comp. People look at the discipline and jump to conclusions about the teaching style. I can also agree with the poster who uses the music there as an argument against there being no creativity – it really is good.
    As for the uniform contributing to social selection – nonsense! The streets of Hackney are awash with blazers of every colour and pattern. Sending your child to Mossbourne will be no more financially onerous than Petchey, Bridge, City, Skinners’ et al. Anyway, most parents will tell you that school uniform saves money in the long run. I appreciate that many parents will struggle to find the upfront cost but I don’t think there is a parent in Hackney who would base their school choice on that.


  11. Nice rant based on careful interpretation of the data. The evidence is that spending has a rather low impact on educational outcomes – here’s a round-up of the literature reported to Parliament:

    In any event, I rather suspect you are comparing apples and pears on pay. Mossbourne teachers will benefit from London Allowance: compared with their regional peers they are only paid 2.3% more, which is not a lavish bonus for better achievement.

    I don’t think we have the data to evaluate their A level performance other than in comparison with broad averages: their score of 98% getting three A levels at an average of grade B is clearly superior to the regional (84%, C-) and national averages (81.8%, C). These comparisons are much wider than their nearest neighbours, and the regional and national averages have generally much more favourable intakes.

    New school buildings don’t seem to be the answer either:

    …in all cases our models showed that pupils at BSF schools make, on average, less progress than would be expected based on their in-take and past performance

    Perhaps the school ethos really does have something to do with its success? One of its dirty little secrets is that it indulges in streamed education – devoting smaller class sizes to under-performing pupils, in order to bring them up to speed. This is how they say they spent their pupil premium money:


    • Thanks for your comment. I think we might be at cross purposes here.

      The point of this article is to say that Mossbourne does well – I said so.

      But other schools’ results are comparable, and some with fewer resources/advantages.

      I have no problem with people saying Mossbourne’s results are good. They are. But I do have a problem with people (Wilshaw, Gove etc) saying Mossbourne’s results are somehow uniquely good – they’re not – and that their methods should be copied by all – they couldn’t be, because most schools don’t have the facilities or resources.

      As an addendum, I wrote this before the research about the “London effect” was published. I found it interesting that the findings of that research suggested that the increased performance in London was down in no small part to the nature of the population – relatively new immigrants to London (from outside the UK and elsewhere in the UK) being more highly motivated than more static populations, and valuing education more highly. I don’t think it’s stretching credulity to suggest that Mossbourne have engineered a very similar effect within their locality, attracting the most motivated students/parents with their very high profile/reputation and their incomparable facilities. If that were the case, then Mossbourne’s results are no more surprising than the results of any local school which manages to gain the reputation of being top of the tree, whatever their methods.

      Sorry if I’m not too receptive to the idea of “ethos”. The fact is that I consider ethos to be the most vacuous term in the education system. They are the very epitome of the Law of the Ridiculous Inverse. Utterly worthless. As ever, school results are overwhelmingly down to just one thing : the students they have. Everything else is Icing on the Cake ((c) Jack Marwood.)


  12. “The Academy will admit up to 20 pupils each year into Year 9 who demonstrates an aptitude for rowing. This number will be in addition to the standard number of 200.”

    Not sure the working classes of Hackney are known for their passion for rowing!


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