This week’s Talking Head comes from Sarah Holmes-Carne, Principal at Kenton School in Newcastle. 

Leading a school serving a disadvantaged community is an immensely tough role. It’s not a role taken for money and certainly not for ease. But one undertaken to make life-changing differences the students we serve, to all of the community and the future generations within the community. To ensure social mobility is a realistic goal for all.

I became a teacher to make a difference to those students who need it the most. Throughout my career, I have moved from one disadvantaged school to another, aiming to make a difference and never wavering from my own personal philosophy that every child does indeed matter.  Regardless of their background. .

Leading an inclusive school of late has become even more challenging since the introduction of Progress 8 so as an education community, we are collectively asking ourselves ‘Has high stakes accountability led to some school leaders losing their way?’ And if we are not asking this question, we should be.

In recent months, an increasing number of schools and Trusts have been named in the press for ‘off rolling’ by permanently excluding Year 11 pupils and encouraging Elective Home Education and using quick win qualifications to inflate the Progress 8 score. Where the press has not named the schools, Ofsted are now being more rigorous in delving deeper into Progress 8 scores where open pot scores are significantly higher than the other pots though the now debunked ECDL and other qualifications that add little to support to the future life chances of the students. Where the numbers on roll in Y10 are significantly higher than Y11. Ofsted reports are highlighting in reports too many EHE, too many FTEs, too many Y11 PEXs.

Who are the students on the receiving end of the EHE, the Y11 PEXs, the inflated open pot scores through ECDL? The most vulnerable students disadvantaged through poverty, disadvantaged through special needs and of course disadvantaged through not having a voice via parents who don’t challenge these questionable decisions by school leaders who appear to have lost their way. The students who deserve the best, an inclusive education, the students who deserve the most polished education that this country has to offer, it seems ironically, their biggest disadvantage is the school they are in. Or at least the system ‘we serve’.

Earlier this year I heard a school leader speak dismissively of the phrase ‘inclusive education’. Suggesting that leaders who state they are an ‘inclusive school’ were making excuses for low standards. That inclusive schools focus on a small percentage of challenging students at the expense of the majority of less challenging students in their schools.

I disagree with this. I serve the school community, every child in the community whatever their disadvantage. I do not pick and choose. I serve the community now, in order to benefit the community in the future. Inclusive education for me, includes every child in school and working hard to ensure no child is left behind.  Whatever their social circumstance.

In school as I walk through lessons I ask myself, ‘would this be good enough for my daughters’, if the answer is no; then it’s not good enough for me. High quality first teaching, high quality school experiences, high standards of behaviour and excellent levels of attendance. I do not expect any less at Kenton School students, than I do for my own daughters.

Is it a coincidence that so many schools with high percentage of disadvantaged students have low P8 scores or Ofsted rating below Good? Of course not. There is an absolutely clear correlation between disadvantage and low P8 scores and an even clearer link between disadvantage, white working class and low P8 scores. However, does that mean all schools with high percentage disadvantage students should sit together wallowing in our own self pity? No, the moment we accept this is our lot, is the moment to give up. We can do this. We can improve the outcomes and life chances for disadvantage students and ensure we retain both our ethical and moral leadership. We can do this AND be truly inclusive.

Achieving this is not easy, but neither is it impossible.

We need, as an educational community, a clear understanding that disadvantage is much broader and much more complex than eligibility of a free school meal.

Knowing the gap between disadvantage students and non-disadvantage students is there at the age of 4 and widens as they get older. Making sure transition with Primary schools is a lengthy process with seamless communication and no child is left behind.

Often we deal with families who are three generations disillusioned with the education system.  Breaking that trend is not easy.

Amongst these pupils cultural poverty is rife and world experiences are lacking and we are again left to be creative and energetic to ensure the disadvantaged pupil is given the same life chances as their more affluent peers.

The biggest issue for a disadvantaged school where they want to retain true inclusion is to comprehend the most significant barrier is emotional poverty. To balance behaviour codes where we insist on high expectations of cooperation and understand that compliance is not the same as cooperation. Achieving compliance is relatively easy but cooperation is truly the goal. We want to ensure we are developing students who contribute positively to society. Investing in those behaviours that seek cooperation does take time but will support our students in becoming self-regulating individuals. This will not only have a positive impact upon impact the school community but also the wider community we serve.

I work with the spectre of an imminent Ofsted with P8 scores that reflect my values that ‘no child is left behind.’ We know the journey we are on at Kenton and as tough as it is with high stakes accountability; I will not allow my moral and ethical leadership to be compromised and I will continue to ensure Kenton School remains a fully inclusive school.

If you would like to share your views on this, or would like to write a Talking Heads blog past, please email 

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