With all the talk about the future of the arts and the ebacc this week, I thought I’d let everyone have a sly look at Chapter 7, which focuses on the debate. 

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Never have a meeting that could have been fixed with a round robin email.

That was what Janet had been told when she attended ‘Leading from the middle’ all those years back . Why spend hours discussing things that had already happened and were not discussion points at all? It just sucked all the life out of you after what had already been an energy sapping day. Agenda item after agenda item designed to swallow up your time and eventually your will to live.

Admittedly, meetings these days were a lot more comfortable since the trust took over. The complete revamp of the staff room and adjoining conference suite made having a meeting in school see more like attending an international summit. Everyone now had an executive chair, the professional looking oval table that had been moved in was exceptionally shiny and the filter coffee on tap was a welcome step up from the rubbish that they had been scraping together before the conversion to an academy.

Looking back over her shoulder and glancing into the rest of the staff room area she was still impressed by the way that the place resembled a small branch of IKEA, with its flash cupboards, industrial size dishwashers (plural, the trust had installed two of them) and American style fridges. She pondered how long it would be possible for someone to live here, sleeping on the comfy sofas and using the communal kitchen which was in a far better state of repair than her own. If it wasn’t for the constant drone of teenage children in the background, living here would be almost bearable.

“Let’s move to item four shall we?”

Four? They had been here for an hour and twelve minutes already (not that she was counting) and four was only halfway down the agenda. At this rate they weren’t getting out before 4:30 which meant sitting in the traffic. Looks like it was going to be a chippy tea again tonight.

“Ebacc targeting & reporting for Year 10 and 11”

Janet’s ears pricked up as unlike the previous agenda items about cross curricular numeracy and the refurbishment of the science corridor, this one was very relevant to her. Languages were an essential part of the ebacc and she needed to make sure any decisions about targeting pupils for extra revision were going to lead to getting the best out of her current crop. She had 48 in the Year 11 cohort this year and 52 in the Year 10’s so this was going to be important.

She glanced down at the agenda and saw that it was Gareth, the school exams officer who would be leading on the discussion. Gareth was a perfect exams officer, Janet thought. As an engineer he cared little for ‘reasons why little Johnny didn’t get his target grade’ or ‘circumstances that meant they hadn’t revised the right topic’. Gareth dealt in facts and figures, black and white, success and failure. His job was to let everyone know where the weak spots were in school and for the rest of them to try and fix it. Luckily for Janet, the results for her own subject of French and the other language subjects she had responsibility for had never been anything less than at national average, so she was confident that anything he was about to say would only help her get those subjects even further up the tree.

“We’ve been looking at the ebacc…” he began, in a manner that told them all clearly that this was going to be a long and drawn out discussion. “…and we think that it’s probably about time that we started to focus the kids minds down on the subjects that we need them to really get the results in”

As he said the word “we” there was a short glance over to Mick, the head, who had clearly had a pre-meeting meeting with Gareth about this particular item.

“We’re proposing to put the kids targets and current predicted grades on a spreadsheet then blow it up onto A2 for a poster outside the dining room. The kids will be able to see where they are in the grand scheme of things. The hope is that it will motivate some of those who are underachieving to be a little more responsive to the extra revision sessions and to the work they do in their gradeboost sessions”

Janet’s made herself tall in her seat. She was responsible for administering gradeboost after all, and anything that gave those kids more focus toward their results was good by her. Getting a 10% rise in A*-C in the cohort was one of her performance management targets and she wanted to go and buy a new coffee maker now that her old one was starting to go on the blink. Met targets equals pay progression, so this new spreadsheet sounded like a splendid idea.

Gareth passed around an A4 mock up of what the display might look like and used his tablet to buzz an image of the same up onto the whiteboard. It was the usual colours of red, amber and green and showed the pupils down one side cross referencing with their ebacc subjects on the other.

There were motivational sticker images around the outside and this year’s push slogan of Together Everyone Achieves More emblazoned across the top. The trust had pushed the slogan across all seven of the schools in the chain from early in the year and now it was starting to be used in everyday parlance throughout communications in the building. Janet made a mental note that she should add it to her email signature should she ever leave this lengthy meeting and make it back to her office.

All seemed fine. The printing would be done on the industrial size laser printer they had over in engineering tomorrow morning and the poster put up in time for lunch for the kids to see. The Year 10 version would follow the week after. All seemed fine.

Then Debbie piped up.

“Sorry, Gareth, I’m probably being slow – that doesn’t seem like all the kids in year 11 – there’s at least fifty missing”

Janet looked to the clock – she wasn’t just going to hit the traffic, she was going to sit firmly in it, stewing, cursing Debbie and using all sorts of rude words that the her mother had always taught her were pure evil. The meeting had already gone on twenty minutes longer than scheduled. How dare Debbie ask a question? Did she not have a home life? She couldn’t remember if Debbie was married or not, but if she was, it couldn’t have been a happy marriage. Who would want to spend their time with someone who asked stupid questions at inopportune moments causing everyone to stay behind well after the bell had gone?

“It’s not all of Year 11. Just the ebacc kids”

“So is there a seperate sheet going up with all of them on it?”

Debbie knew the answer to this, but wasn’t going to let her own knowledge on the matter get in the way of her making a fair point in front of everybody. Debbie was ebacc-sceptic and everybody knew it. As representative from Special Educational Needs, she spoke for those who were usually struggling to articulate for themselves. The forgotten few, those on the margins of society. The thickie kids doing soft subjects. The ebacc push was all about academic excellence and she was rarely consulted on the way it affected the children in her care.

“All pupils will still see the displays in their own subject areas about how they are progressing in individual courses” chirped up Mick, who had anticipated there being opposition to the idea in advance, hence his pre-meeting with Gareth.

“This is to highlight to the whole school how important the ebacc is to us all and to give it some gravitas amongst the students”

Big up the ebacc. That’s all they had heard for the previous three years. Get them into languages, inspire them in humanities – steer them towards excellence in academia. For Janet, the head of MFL, this sounded like the mood music for an academic love affair which would develop into a long and lasting healthy relationship. For Debbie who taught health and social care and looked after kids in set 4, it sounded like she was getting shafted.

“Has anyone thought about how this is going to make the children who haven’t opted for the ebacc courses feel?” continued Debbie, who had never been one for giving up on lost causes.

There was an audible groan from Janet, who, realising that she had just done so, held her stomach as if this was a digestive issue and not one of disdain for one of her touchy-feely lefty colleagues. She had a dislike for lefties in general, particularly teaching ones with their lapel badges, union posters and a view of the seventies as some golden era of education. Debbie Johnstone was one of those and was pushing all of Janet’s buttons at exactly the wrong time.

Debbie knew the stomach excuse was bullshit and threw Janet a confrontational look that she was in no mood for.

“Yes?”

“You seem to have a problem with what I was saying about how the kids will feel about the poster?”

“I didn’t say anything”

“You didn’t need to. The way you were rolling your eyes about like a Year 9 in the dinner queue told me everything”

Mick sat back. As the head charged with turning this school around in just six short months by the heads of the trust, he hadn’t yet worked out the dynamics between the staff who had been in it for the long haul. Between them Debbie and Janet had over thirty five years educational experience and both it seemed were coming from ideologically opposite ends of the spectrum. Whoever won this round was likely give him a marker for the future when it came to the larger battles of curriculum changes and bringing the staffing bill down. If nothing else he’d learned one very important thing from fast track management – ‘Never take sides – you’ll have to screw over all of them at one point in your career’.

“We’re having a discussion about attainment, this isn’t a pastoral conversation”

Janet had been challenged and was now a long way from her early meeting slumber. She had never been one for sitting back and letting some jumped up Trot tell her what to do. How did the kids feel? They were teenagers. It was a Thursday evening, they probably wouldn’t be feeling anything as the majority of them would be on a PlayStation or asleep.

“It is a pastoral conversation when you start marginalising the achievements of those who are not in this special group. What about all my kids who are doing HSC? There’s only one of them on this list – if I was Hayley Matthews I’d go away thinking ‘Well, they don’t care what I get, why should I bother?’”

“Are you suggesting we should have run it by Hayley first to see how she feels? Although how we’d manage that with her attendance record I have no idea…”

Hayley had been a poor example for Debbie to pull out of the hat – there had been more sightings of Sasquach around the school in the last few months than there had been of Hayley Matthews. Debbie wanted to justify her example by telling her how Hayley was a young carer and that she couldn’t physically get into school while looking after her Mum, but she knew it was off point and would have given Janet an excuse to scoff some more.

“I just don’t understand why we would celebrate the achievements of one group of kids but not the others”

“This isn’t about celebrating achievement – it’s about giving them a kick up the backside. Look at all those kids on ambers or reds. If it stays that way in August then we all might as well pack up and go home. We’ll be in special measures and the Year 11’s whose feelings you’re worrying about will be lining up in the dole queue, probably with some of us standing behind them”

There was a hush. Even Mick wasn’t sure how to intervene. Everyone round the table knew it was true, despite Janet having the tact and subtlety of a toddler with a chainsaw. If they didn’t turn the school results round before the summer term then their heads were on the block and the school would be plunged even further into chaos. It didn’t matter if Debbie’s Health & Social Care group aced the exam, got 100% A*-C and ran through the streets singing about it at the top of their voices. If the percentage of kids getting the ebacc didn’t go up, then the school would deemed to be coasting or worse, identified for closure.

Mick realised it was time to bring things back into order.

“I think what Janet is trying to say here Debbie is that we have to prioritise and promote the ebacc if we are going to get the school onto an improvement footing. That’s in the best interests of those pupils who are not on the ebacc programme too as we don’t want to find ourselves constantly under scrutiny from the trust and DofE.”

“And what do we do about inspiring the kids doing non ebacc subjects?”

Debbie hadn’t been placated.

“Half those subjects won’t even be on the curriculum in five years – we’re much better off looking at the longer term”

Janet wasn’t going to let Red Deb have last word.

“How can you say that when one of the subjects you are responsible for is probably in the firing line? You’re supposed to stick up for the departments you are representing!”

“If you are referring to Drama, then we’re already looking at ways that it can contribute to the curriculum in other ways than it currently does. Jim knows we can’t keep on promoting a subject that doesn’t contribute to the school results more positively.”

There, she’d said it. She looked over to Mick for backing. She got nothing in return but she took his silence as an implicit agreement that it was a waste of time giving backing to a subject that wasn’t going to count a jot in the figures from now on.

Debbie was dumbstruck – no one had dared threaten another subject with the axe before and knew that she was one of those ‘outside the club’. It was all very well standing for your political principles but she had one daughter in her second year at Uni and another getting married in the Autumn. If Drama could be under threat then it was only a matter of time before Health & Social Care was next in the chopping queue.

Mick brought matters back to order.

“I think we’re getting a bit off track. We’ll see how that one develops when the mock results come in I think. Now, we’re getting a bit behind so let’s look at agenda item number five. Sports day – are we going to have one?”

Janet raised her head to catch Debbie’s eye. The stare which greeted her back was one Jack Nicholson would have been proud of.

The gloves were well and truly off.