By David Spereall, local democracy reporter
The school system should water down its “constant emphasis” on academic success for the benefit of children, a former Ofsted inspector has claimed.
Caroline Gruen said pupils were being “hammered” with messages about the importance of exam results, while being “pushed down an avenue they can’t cope with”.
Mrs Gruen, who was a practising lead Ofsted inspector for 10 years and is a serving Labour councillor in Leeds, made the remarks during a debate about falling school attendance in the city.
The local secondary school attendance rate was 90.8 per cent in the 2021/22 academic year, compared to 94.2 per cent immediately before Covid. Figures for the last school year have not been published.
But the decline has been mirrored nationally, with the effects of lockdown among the factors blamed for the problem.
Speaking at Leeds Council’s children and families scrutiny board on Wednesday, Councillor Gruen said the Leeds West Academy, where she is a governor, had done “everything possible” to get pupils back to school. Despite this, some children still remain absent, she said.
Coun Gruen, who represents the Bramley area of the city, said: “I’m getting to the point where I feel we need to take a step back from this constant emphasis on attainment.
“If those children who’d not attended school did actually get in for a day or two they were then immediately hammered with, ‘you need to catch up’, ‘you’ve got an exam’, ‘you need to revise’, ‘it’s all about attainment’.
“That’s not what they needed at that point.
“As an ex-inspector I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s true. I just think we need to take a step back from that.”
Councillor Gruen said the government and local authorities needed to “invest in learning environments that are different” to make it easier for children to to thrive.
She added: “It’s a national issue. But in Leeds we have to think about how we can create different places for children to learn and not push them down an avenue they can’t cope with. Because I think that’s what’s happening post-Covid.”
A serious shortage of support staff in schools was also cited as a factor in falling pupil attendance.
Helen Bellamy, from the National Education Union’s (NEU’s) Leeds division, told the meeting: “If you can’t get those staff on the ground to work with teachers to support those children, even if you know what needs to be done, that’s a huge issue.”