Hundreds of A-level students will gather at their old schools and colleges tomorrow (Thursday 16 August) to find out their results.
And in a week’s time (Thursday 23 August) schools will welcome back an even higher number of former pupils as they return to learn their GCSE grades.
Some of the teachers will be as nervous as their former teenage charges. And there will be tears of joy and, in some cases, disappointment.
The signs are promising that the number of students going on to leading universities from Brighton, Hove and Sussex VI Form College (BHASVIC), Varndean College and Cardinal Newman Catholic School will once again be above the national average.
Last year Varndean was the best performing college in the country for the International Baccalaureate. This year it has already reported even better results.
Most secondary school head teachers appear to be confident too that GCSE results will be better this year.
For some years the level of performance at the age of 16 has been the weakest link locally. It led to a review – called the Secondary Schools Commission – being set up.
Secondary heads were already on the case but they appear to have been galvanised just under two years ago by the arrival of Terry Parkin as the Brighton and Hove City Council’s strategic director for people.
Mr Parkin is a former science teacher who became a schools inspector. As an education official, he has a reputation for improving performance.
This track record was partly why he was chosen for the job in Brighton and Hove.
He is leaving shortly to become director of children and young people services in the London borough of Bromley.
His approach in Brighton and Hove can be glimpsed in his report on the findings of the Secondary Schools Commission and from his comments when it was presented to councillors.
It starts with the raising of expectations and aspirations. And it relies on a rigorous focus on good teaching.
The role of the council as local education authority has become more constrained as the government has given more control and more of the money directly to schools.
But Mr Parkin regards his job as being rather like a marriage broker. To take just one local example, the head of maths at Dorothy Stringer has been working in another school where results in this subject were poor.
Mr Parkin has been critical in the past of the expectation that every new teacher and each newly appointed head will be outstanding straight away. But neither does he believe that pupils should have to suffer poor teaching.
His answer is not, as some have suggested, just to sack bad teachers. His aim has been to start by assessing performance and providing help, support and mentoring.
He said: “The best schools have a clear focus on improving classroom practice. If a teacher is struggling, get a good teacher alongside them to take some of their lessons.”
Part of his legacy in Brighton and Hove will be the much higher expectations on teachers.
Secondary school heads have agreed that four in five lessons should be good or outstanding within the next two years.
If that is achieved, our secondary schools may begin to perform at a similar level to our primary schools and sixth form colleges.
Mr Parkin added: “We’ve got loads of good teachers in the city who give their all for their kids.
“We still get a good response when we advertise for jobs.”
He believes that the quality is reflected in the most recent Key Stage 2 results for primary schools – the best so far in Brighton and Hove.
And just as he will be leaving the city with best ever results, he did the same when he came here from Southwark.
There, he was known for his mantras which included “poverty is no excuse” and “good enough is not good enough”.
He said: “I don’t care what background kids have. School is the one chance they get to change that. If I’m passionate about one thing, it’s about that.”
Given how much time children spend with their teachers, especially in primary school, it is easy to see why he believes so strongly that the quality of teaching is vital.
One former head of Cardinal Newman with a similarly rigorous approach was known for the way he quietly went around the school.
Peter Evans looked through the windows as lessons were under way. He would check the children’s faces. And he looked at them as they came out of classes.
It was only one measure of a teacher’s ability, but a powerful one.
His successor and the other eight state school heads of secondary schools in Brighton and Hove agreed to work together to raise standards after the report of the Secondary Schools Commission.
Janet Felkin, the head teacher at Blatchington Mill, has the job of managing their progress.
And the targets and expectations that have flowed from the report are captured in the council’s Corporate Plan.
It was the subject of discussion at the most recent meeting of the full council when Councillor Andrew Wealls urged greater ambition, particularly for the poorest children in the city.
The Conservative education spokesman pointed out that the plan allows for a much poorer performance at GCSE level by children who qualify for free school meals.
Councillor Jason Kitcat, the council leader, said: “I share his ambition. We should be ambitious for our children.”
A fellow Green, Councillor Rob Jarrett, cautioned against setting targets that would not be realistic at present in Brighton and Hove.
The backdrop includes the verdict of Ofsted, the schools watchdog, published in the autumn of 2010 when Mr Parkin arrived.
In a report about Brighton and Hove it said: “The large majority of services, settings and institutions inspected by Ofsted are good or better.
“Day care for young children has improved since the last assessment. The large majority of nursery and early years provision in primary schools is good or better.
“More primary schools than in similar areas are good or better and almost a quarter are outstanding.
“In contrast, the overall effectiveness of secondary schools is weaker than at the last assessment and is well below the national and similar area averages with only three of the nine schools good or better and one inadequate.
“The quality of post-16 provision is mixed. Although both sixth form colleges are good and the general further education college satisfactory, only one of the four secondary school sixth forms is good and one is inadequate.”
City College Brighton and Hove has since had a much better report – good with outstanding features. The leadership provided by the departing principal Phil Frier was praised.
Around this time of year he usually aims to let school leavers know that many of them, even after their A-level results, will be entitled to free education there.
Mr Parkin is also preparing to leave. And he does so as another set of results – the GCSEs, following the Key Stage 2 results – look likely to support his approach to raising standards.
In the meantime, the debate about the targets we should be setting for our schools and our city as a whole will of course continue. Perhaps it will always be a question of “could do better”. Discuss.
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