It is hard to think of a school more challenging and, crucially, less enticing for both the new staff needed to transform its future and parents in the local community to willingly send their children there.
It is at rock bottom.
All of which begs the question – how can you transform a school’s reputation?
The answer is patience. And an awful lot of it.
“It can take one year to wreck a school’s reputation,” says Peter Read, a head of Gravesend Grammar for 15 years before running an advisory service for families facing problems with the education service, “and between five to 10 years to rebuild it.”
It’s a sobering thought, but reversing the decline is akin to turning the metaphorical oil tanker around. First you need to slow and stop the negativity, which takes years, then swing the vessel around so it, finally, starts moving in the right direction. Then you have to hope it continues on its journey.
“In some cases it is a generational project,” he says. “In Kent, a secondary modern school facing socio-economic difficulties, with a history of poor academic outcomes and a reputation amongst the local community which is at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, will require a herculean effort to turn around.
“No one individual can achieve such a task. It requires significant investment, stable staffing, active support from all community stakeholders and, above all, the school needs time. The ‘political’ need for quick outcomes should be replaced with securing sound educational foundations and an emphasis on process. Quick fixes generally only lead to quick failures.
“Historically, turning round a secondary modern school in Kent has followed a predictable pattern. Remove the head. Appoint a new one. Declare a new dawn. Change the school’s name. Introduce a new uniform. Chuck up a new building. Impose a new disciplinary code with snappy sound bites, ‘tough love’ or ‘zero tolerance’. Exclude a number of children, particularly in Year 9, 10 or 11, ‘pour encourages les autres’ [to encourage others].
“Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. Problems may simply be removed but not resolved. Behaviour can improve but any youngsters permanently excluded become collateral damage.
“An immediate focus on improving, or manipulating, examination outcomes for Year 10 and Year 11, however, can mean Years 7, 8 and 9 received less focus. The urgent drives out the important. A press blitz will trumpet any successes, imagined or real. The reputation will improve but whether it could be sustained was always less certain.
“It’s pretty much the same process now except a ‘super-head’ is drafted in, often at great expense, and the school finds itself embraced by, or straight-jacketed within, an academy chain. If that is deemed not to work then the initial academy chain is simply replaced with another. And, repeat.”
Exclusions, however, prompt another problem – and in the case of the Oasis Academy, the question is just where do these children go?
Peter Read points out that as a result of the Oasis school’s dire reputation, all other schools in Sittingbourne are heavily over-subscribed – in other words, there is no room, locally, at the inn for the expelled pupil.
“I follow closely school admission applications,” he explains. “I see the popularity of schools changing according to their reputation. You can see a shift in opinions – long before, say, Ofsted visits and delivers its verdict.
“If a school gets a lot of LAAs (local authority allocations) it's because parents haven't named it on their list.”
Local authority allocations are, effectively, when the most popular schools are filled up and, instead, a child has to be allocated a school with spare capacity.
In its intake earlier this year, around 43% of Oasis Academy children were LAAs.
Another school which has suffered in the past from high LAAs is Hartsdown in Margate. Its reputation has been in the doldrums for some time.
Yet it recently saw its Ofsted report upgraded to ‘good’ and provisional Progress 8 figures released last month (which show the progress a pupil makes from leaving primary school to taking their GCSEs) put it as the most improved in Kent and one of the most improved in England.
But, warns Peter Read, it will “take years to junk its reputation”. Which perhaps underlines the challenges schools face. They can be moving in the right direction but opinions can – and have – already been formed.
Adds Phil Karnavas: “The most authoritative judgment of any school is best made by its students. Are they proud of their school? Do they attend? Do they feel safe? Do people listen to them? Do they feel valued? Do they learn anything? Do they ‘enjoy and achieve’?
“Students will feel content in a school with a good reputation which is actually good; be cynical if their school’s good reputation is undeserved; be genuinely upset if its bad reputation doesn’t match their good experiences; and, disillusioned if a school’s poor reputation is their lived experience.
“And as soon as a reputation starts to slip things can unravel quickly; parental complaints rise, students leave, fewer students join, staff leave, replacing staff is difficult, finances contract, staff cuts follow, provision becomes less attractive, morale plummets, student behaviour worsens, attendance declines, outcomes deteriorate, leading to more parental complaints, more students leaving, fewer students joining and so it continues.
“The need is to intervene when things can be put right and then to do the right thing. If not done, in a competitive market model of education, it’s almost impossible to halt such a decline.”
It’s not all one-way traffic though. And the likes of Hartsdown can take comfort from success stories elsewhere.
Look at what was once the Duncan Bowen high school in Ashford. Back in the 1980s it had as miserable a reputation you could have hoped for. Its main entrance butted onto the often troubled Stanhope estate and (both the school and estate’s) reputation preceeded them.
You would not recognise it today, however.
It had to go through two name changes – first to Christ Church in 1990 and then, eventually, to the John Wallis Academy in 2010. It also switched its main entrance from one side of the site to the other. In doing so, it lost its Stanhope address and gained one in the ever-expanding neighbouring Kingsnorth. It was also helped by a major multi-million investment in Stanhope to tackle some of the estate’s problems.
Since that 2010 revamp, under a fresh name, strong new leadership, broader intake area and a clever bit of repositioning, today it is a popular choice and rated ‘good’ by Ofsted since 2014.
So what makes up a school’s reputation?
Explains Phil Karnavas: “It emerges from a local kaleidoscopic jumble of personal experiences, understanding of a school’s values and opinions of its students’ behaviour; achievement, inclusivity, teaching and leadership.
“Reputations are influenced by where a school is, what type of school it is and how well it does what it is expected to do. Reputations may, or may not, be fair. A good reputation is precious but it is also precarious. Reputations change.
“Reputations are affected by locality. Schools in affluent areas attracting middle-class children start with a competitive advantage, will probably do well and enjoy good reputations. The corollary is obvious.
“In terms of results, Kent’s grammar schools are pretty much home free enjoying an unassailable advantage and the good reputation that follows. Most schools with a religious denomination start with an advantage. But, many of Kent’s secondary moderns have always been up against it, a few impossibly so.
“Thus, some schools have good reputations bestowed upon them, some schools achieve good reputations, some schools can quickly lose a good reputation and others may never achieve one. But it’s always been easier to lose a good reputation than to establish one.”
It’s often easy to forget, but our schools sit at the heart of our communities. They provide a shared experience for so many of us and a sense of lifelong association. We rely on them to educate and look after our children; the community’s next generation. We need them to perform.
They are also the subject of much discussion – from parents outside the school gates to those pondering where to send their children once they emerge from primary school. And word – good or bad – spreads fast.
Adds Peter Read: “When it comes to building a reputation, one of the key factors is Ofsted and a second is performance. After that, where do they go? And it's talking to people or experience. They are the key factors.
“All head teachers say go and visit the school. But I don't think that works as schools are then on their best behaviour.
“Today, social media may be more important to a school's image in the community than parents visiting the school.”
From a groundswell of dissatisfaction comes the cracks which can pull a school down.
Take a look at the Chaucer in Canterbury. Once a hugely popular non-selective, it started to slide, was hit with a hammer blow of a disappointing Ofsted report followed by an increasingly dramatic decline in pupil numbers. The consequence? It was forced to close its doors for good. “And that,” said Peter Read, “probably all took place within the space of five years.”
Adds Phil Karnavas: “Many factors contribute to such a loss of reputation. The key, simplistically, is leadership.
“A long-serving head going without adequate succession planning leaves their successor, especially if inexperienced, vulnerable. Repeatedly changing heads in a short period is always damaging.
“An interfering governing body is unhelpful. Some new heads find themselves in the wrong school. Other heads just get it wrong. Some heads are unlucky with their own, or staff’s, ill health. Some may be overwhelmed by events – a bus station ‘punch up’ or allegations of misconduct, for example, if unfavourably and sensationally covered by the local press and amplified by social media, can cause massive reputational damage.
“Then there’s Ofsted. Ofsted must be running out of time because it has run out of credibility. It takes scant regard of context. It’s a one-size-fits-all, is overburdened by its own paperwork, restricted by its own systems, lacks resources to properly evaluate large schools and is plagued by inconsistency. It can only produce statements of the blindingly obvious or of the disturbingly inaccurate.
“Parents should beware giving Ofsted a regard it does not deserve. The best Ofsted tends to do is 'no harm' but the worst it can do is cause massive damage to children, adults and reputations.
“To really turn around a school and secure its reputation is easier said than done. It requires that school to be a genuine part of its community. It must be open and responsive to it and supportive of it.
“The staff, parents and children must believe all students will ‘enjoy and achieve’ in their inclusive school that offers something for everybody not just for those that will pass maths and English with high grades. It must have a clear ethos, moral purpose and values that the local community share and buy into. The school must then hold firm to these no matter what.
“Parents will want to send their children to the school because they believe in, and trust, it. Applications for places rise.
“When those children who have ‘enjoyed and achieved’ become parents and choose to send their children to their old school then a genuine turnaround will have been successfully concluded and a good reputation embedded.”
All of which should give plenty of food for thought for the Leigh Academies Trust and the EKC Schools Trust – the two organisations tasked with splitting the Oasis Academy back into two schools – public consultation permitting - and shedding a reputation the sites in Minster and Sheerness have clung on to for decades.
Let’s meet back here in 2034 and mark their work.