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.
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.
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.