Does naming and shaming really work?

14 Jun 2008 BBC News

Can naming and shaming help schools?

By Mike Baker
Mike Baker


Could history be repeating itself?


The latest National Challenge strategy to eliminate all schools in England with low GCSE pass-rates recalls the "naming and shaming" of schools in May 1997?

Back then, a mere seven days after the general election, the new Labour government named 18 "failing" schools in England which they threatened with closure.

It was the beginning of the so-called "fresh start" policy. The schools were given just two years to turn around.

The then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, said "difficult situations demand tough solutions".

The schools were seen as a necessary sacrifice to the wider message that failure would not be tolerated

That initiative was all about politics.

It was a deliberately provocative and headline-catching ploy to underline a key "New Labour" message: zero tolerance of failure.

Like all policies that were more about politics than genuine reform, the "name and shame" approach was a shock tactic not a long-term answer to the problems of under-performing schools.

It was unfair on the schools concerned.

As there were only 18 of them, they received intense media coverage.

Any progress they were making was immediately undermined by the bad publicity.

This "naming and shaming" of a small number of schools was not repeated.

Even those involved have since admitted privately that it was unfair.

'Fresh start'


But, at the time, the schools were seen as a necessary sacrifice to the wider message that failure would not be tolerated.

Over the next 10 years, the government in England - but notably not in the rest of the UK - continued to set targets and to propose new initiatives to tackle school failure, although individual schools were no longer picked out.

Instead, a blunderbuss approach was employed: using a more scattered target embracing all schools achieving below a certain, and rather arbitrary, level of GCSE passes.

Some ministers involved in this period have admitted that, despite achieving overall improvements, they failed to find a way of ending school failure. England has had "fresh start" initiatives, specialist schools, City Academies, school federations, public-private partnerships, and Trust Schools.

Yet there are still schools that fall below government targets.

But this week the government tried again.

So is the "National Challenge" just another initiative driven more by political, as opposed to educational, necessity?

'Against the odds'

There is certainly a political imperative: ministers know that the one thing parents and voters expect is a decent local school.

However, they chose their words more carefully than in the past. They avoided labelling all the 638 schools that fell below the "minimum standard" for GCSE passes as "failing".

However, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, did suggest that in about one-third of these schools, where "structural change'" was needed, they might be closed and re-opened as academies or trusts.

But why use the benchmark of 30% of pupils achieving five good GCSE's including maths and English?

Such a measure is inevitably a very blunt instrument for determining which schools are genuinely failing.

Some schools falling below 30% may already be on the path towards improvement. Others will be doing a very good job against the odds.

By contrast, schools that are not on the list because they are achieving above the 30% target could still be "failing" if they are not achieving sufficient progress with their pupils.

This government has rightly introduced more sophisticated measures of school effectiveness, such as the "contextually value-added" performance tables.

All of these methods have been tried before. Sometimes they have worked

Yet curiously they have chosen to ignore this data and rely on the sledgehammer measure of raw results.

In my local area, two schools fall into the under 30% category. Their closure threat was on the front page of the local newspaper, which will not help them make progress.

The first has already been taken into a partnership with a more successful neighbouring school.

It is also receiving a £27 million rebuild as part of Building Schools for the Future.

The other school is undergoing a £23 million rebuild. It gets very good results in maths and science but slips back in English because 25% of its pupils do not have English as their first language.

Also 30% of pupils have special needs and yet Ofsted has found the school to be satisfactory.

Both cases show how inadvisable it is to give a list of schools that are being targeted in this way.


There will always be local factors that are not picked up by national targets.

Moreover, both schools lose the brightest children from their area to nearby grammar schools. And this highlights a clear pattern in the government's list of target schools.

Kent, Birmingham, Lincolnshire and Essex are the four authorities with the largest number of schools on the under 30% list. All have grammar schools.

The government may not wish to reopen the grammar school debate, but their list highlights the reality that there is a clear correlation between a school's intake and its raw exam results.

It is also noticeable that in both Scotland and Wales, where there are no grammar schools, the devolved governments have not got into the same lather over "failing" schools.

So, has this been a repeat of the 1997 "name and shame" exercise? Not exactly - some lessons do seem to have been learned.

Despite producing a rather arbitrary list of 638 schools, at least this time no ministers suggested that they were all "failing".

Moreover there has been less stick and more carrot, with genuine help on offer including extra cash, a panel of expert advisors, "superheads", and partnerships.

This combination of cash and support has achieved success in the London Challenge schools, so rolling it out nationally seems the right thing to do.

But it would be misleading to suggest this is entirely new.

All of these methods have been tried before. Sometimes they have worked.

But they are no magic bullet particularly when all aspects of a school's intake work against success measured in raw exam passes.

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