Whisper it – I’m carrying on inspecting.

Like a lot of people who’ve been around the education system for a while, my relationship with Ofsted is complicated. I’ve been in schools on the receiving end of inspection many times (at least 10 as a Head or MAT leader), I’ve advised and supported dozens of schools as they have gone through the process, I’ve even written a doctoral thesis on the emotional impact of Ofsted failure on Head Teachers (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/50957/ if you’re interested). Oh, and I’m an inspector, both team and lead, primary and secondary. It’s fair to say that I’ve seen it from both sides and have a pretty good idea of the process and impact.

I’ve also followed the debate the profession has had in recent times about Ofsted, particularly since the introduction of EIF. I’ve read the opinions of many colleagues for whom I have great respect, who have provided trenchant criticisms and shocking case studies, and have seen the #PauseOfsted campaign gain momentum, driven not least by my own union. Inevitably, I’ve also seen the question raised whether serving school leaders should continue to inspect.

So I’ve asked myself the same question and come to a fairly clear conclusion – I’m carrying on. I’m carrying on partly for some selfish reasons, namely that inspecting is hugely valuable for my own professional development and for my own schools. The knowledge I get from working in the inspection system, the experience of visiting a whole range of schools and observing great practice, the additional resource it brings in – all are extremely useful.

But I’m also carrying on because, on balance, I think this work is good work and makes our system better – better for children and young people and, yes, better for our profession. I say this with some trepidation because I suspect this a minority view amongst colleagues, so let me give my reasons:

We need accountability in a publicly-funded system: It’s not enough anymore to say to parents, taxpayers and politicians – leave it to us, we’re the experts. People have a right to know that public money is spent wisely and that our children are safe and well-provided for. I’ve been in education long enough to remember a time before Ofsted when there was almost no way to challenge (admittedly isolated) cases of shockingly poor practice.

Inspection is a far better form of accountability than performance tables: Our accountability system operates on two tracks – performance tables and inspection reports. Performance tables pit schools against each other, encourage damaging gaming and off-rolling, do not allow sufficiently for context, and reduce the complexity of a school’s work to a handful of narrow measures. An effective and well-run inspection system can and should avoid all these things – it can consider the full range of a school’s work (including whether or not children are safe), can highlight questionable practice, and in a criterion-based framework, inspectors do not need to consider the work of other schools when they look at one school in particular.

The new EIF is built on strong values and principles: The new framework is the biggest change to inspection since it was first introduced, and this has undoubtedly led to inconsistency as it has become embedded. It has also led to additional workload from schools that have tried to second guess Ofsted and adapt to the new approach to the curriculum. However, from my experience of the training process, I can vouch for the efforts made to ensure that inspectors understand the principles that underpin EIF, as well as having the knowledge to implement it faithfully.

At its core, it is designed to establish whether all pupils are offered a broad and challenging curriculum, it directly challenges gaming and off-rolling, it discourages practices that lead to excessive workload, such as excessive marking (with due acknowledgement to the workload created in this initial phase), it allows for context and recognises that schools may be on a journey by removing the focus on data, and it gives a genuine voice in the process to teachers and pupils. I believe that it will lead to significant improvements in the quality of middle leadership in school as the role of subject expert is given real value and purpose.

This is not a framework for the DfE, or for the mighty centralised MATs (as is currently being demonstrated). I think the problems caused by the painful process of change are obscuring the benefits of the change itself.

My experience of inspection has shown me that inspectors are committed, knowledgeable and want to support schools: You may have to take my word for it, but my experience of working on inspection is not what some might imagine. Almost everyone I’ve worked with is well-briefed, conscientious and experienced. During an inspection, there is always a strong desire to see the best in the school, and a hope that the inspection turns out to be a successful one. On the occasions when things start to go astray, inspection teams agonise over the decision. The presence of serving practitioners is valued and their perspective forms an important part of the discussion. It’s hard to relax and present a human face when the stakes are so high, but it does exist.

For what it’s worth, I think that the biggest problems with our inspection system lie in the way that outcomes are presented and used. However, the fact that information is often misused is not a convincing argument for less information.

So, I’ll carry on putting myself forward and trying to do the job to the best of my ability. I know it’s not perfect and things seem particularly strained at the moment, but the system is stronger for the presence of people who carry out their day job in school.

Splendid isolation? Why I’m struggling to pick a side

I have to be honest, I am a little nervous about entering the behaviour discussion that seems to dominate education at the moment. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that the following:

#edutwitter behaviour debate is so dispiriting. On a subject so complex, multi-layered and context-driven, how have we ended up with such a simplistic division? Allowing a pupil to disrupt others’ learning is clearly wrong, as is ignoring individual needs – it’s not either/or.’

I thought it was an unremarkable observation. However, responses ranged from enthusiastic agreement to someone who ended their response with ‘Who are you? Shut up.’ I’m not too precious about these things but thought it an interesting illustration of the way opinion has become entrenched.

Since then, I have watched the debate continue to be ramped up, making the front page of the Guardian, heated debates on the Today programme, and all out war between the Children’s Commissioner and the Government Behaviour Tsar. As we head towards the ‘Lose the Booths’ event, I’m expecting the sound of the debate to grow, probably at the expense of the light it provides. Will anyone’s opinion shift as a result? I’m not holding my breath.

So, in a small attempt to promote consensus, because that’s the kind of woolly liberal I am, I have three opinions about the current debate.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to behave in a way that prevents other children from learning, makes the classroom unsafe or puts intolerable burdens on the teacher.

As pragmatic professionals, sometimes we have to take a step backwards to move forward. A behaviour policy that does not allow for a student ever to be removed from class as part of a stepped approach is asking for trouble. As long as the long-term aim is for students to address and improve their behaviour, and return to class to learn, then there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with removal from class.

Consequences have to be part of any effective behaviour policy. There needs to be enough flexibility to account for individual needs, but the bottom line is that student learning is damaged when behaviour is poor. It’s our responsibility as professionals to address that situation decisively when it occurs.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to be isolated in a way that is cruel and excessively punitive.

Removal from class to work elsewhere for short periods whilst work takes place to correct long-term behaviour is a good way of addressing a problem, and it’s also fine to make it clear that this is a negative consequence of negative behaviour choices – it’s not fine to isolate pupils in a situation for extended periods where there is almost no interaction with others, or support for learning. It’s also not ok to remove students from learning for extended periods for minor infractions of equipment or uniform policy. There are better ways of dealing with this. Colleagues tell me that this is rare, but there is no doubt that it happens, and it appears to be increasing.

  • Everyone has a right to opinion

Among the most self-defeating aspects of the whole debate are comments along the lines of ‘people who argue this have clearly never worked in a school with challenging behaviour’ or ‘I assume people who advocate this don’t have a child with special needs’, the assumption being that you therefore should not express an opinion. School leaders need to be able to make decisions and parents and others in the wider community have the right to advocate for children, but it doesn’t mean that views can’t be respectfully challenged. It’s not a straight choice between isolation booths and disruptive classrooms, nor between keeping everyone in class and inflicting cruel and psychologically damaging punishment.

By the way, I’m a school leader, I teach, I’m the father of a child with SEND and I have worked in a variety of contexts, including schools in high levels of deprivation. The schools I work in currently are successful, inclusive schools, with very high standards of behaviour, low exclusion rates and no isolation booths, but do have SLT on-call systems and arrangements for students to be removed from class if necessary.

Time to get rid of ‘Outstanding’ schools?

It’s rare, especially in these fractious times, that a policy announcement is greeted with almost universal approval, but we’ve had that in education this week. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson confirmed that the inspection exemption for the almost 4,000 schools with a current Outstanding Ofsted judgement will be lifted in September, subject to consultation and a Parliamentary vote. They will now be on the same 5-year cycle as schools judged ‘Good’.

This move appears to have the support of almost all sectors of the education community including DfE, Ofsted, professional associations, the majority of teachers – even the schools who will now be subject to the same Ofsted pressures as the rest of us have welcomed it.

It’s not hard to see why this move is both popular and necessary. When some schools have not been inspected for over a decade, and may have had a complete turnover of staff in the meantime, the judgement lacked any credibility. It’s also becoming clear at the moment that a judgement under a previous framework does not automatically transfer to the new framework. The small proportion of outstanding schools that have been inspected in the recent past have primarily been identified through a desktop analysis of data – under the new framework, this is a much less reliable indicator of inspection outcome.

However, just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean that it will be completely straightforward to put it into practice, and we should be prepared for some unintended consequences.

Firstly, we should be prepared for a steady decline in the proportion of outstanding schools. Unless all the current cohort retain their judgement, this is entirely predictable, not an indicator that standards are declining. However, it’s the sort of thing that makes politicians twitchy, and gives journalists the chance to concoct a story out of nothing.

Secondly, it will become increasingly difficult to demonstrate consistency across the system for the outstanding judgement. Without any external data to moderate judgements and with such a high bar, it will be very hard for both practitioners and parents to understand what outstanding signifies. For example, one school might lose its outstanding label because of a small proportion of off-task behaviour, another for over-zealous behaviour policies. Be ready for a steady stream of outraged schools challenging the basis for their downgraded judgement.

Surely the time has now come to revisit the value of the Outstanding judgement. I know this was considered in the last framework but this week’s announcement changes the context.

Apart from anything else, the word itself is not helpful to system-wide improvement. By definition, only a small proportion of schools can be outstanding – if everyone reaches the benchmark, they no longer ‘stand out’. It’s become something that divides and excludes schools, and discourages the system-wide co-operation that is so vital.

What benefit is the outstanding judgement bringing to the system? I know that some will be reluctant to give up their competitive advantage, but why not have a system where all schools can aspire to excellence? An inspection system that recognises that all schools have strengths and weaknesses, and doesn’t put a favoured few on a pedestal.

Reasons to be Cheerful – Why I’m feeling optimistic about teaching in the 2020s

OK, it’s the holidays and the start of a brand new decade, I’m well-fed, well-rested and feeling fairly relaxed. I’m at that point where I can now contemplate the new term with a sense of relative calm and positivity. It may be that everything I write here is written under an illusory fog of goodwill which will disappear in first contact with reality.

However, I’ve always believed that relentless and indefatigable optimism is a necessary condition for leadership. If as a leader, you don’t believe that the future is bright, then you have to be very good at pretending you do – how much more sensible to look for the positives so that your first day back smile is genuine.

For the sake of clarity, I’m aware of the issues surrounding accountability, funding, SEND, online dangers, the climate crisis, the growing dangers of racism and prejudice, threats posed by crashing out of the EU, knife crime, mental health disorders, workload, curriculum change and all the other issues we face. I’m not denying that problems and challenges exist, and I apologise to those who will no doubt find this a ridiculously Pollyanna-ish outlook, but even when challenges face us, there is always joy and satisfaction to be gained from working with children and young people.

So, here’s my five reasons to be cheerful about working in schools at the turn of the decade:

  • The argument about funding has been won

Ok, winning the argument is not the same as having the cash in the bank, but in the general noise and nonsense of the election campaign, one thing about education was clear – every party knew that they had to promise more funds for education. The colleagues who have taken this fight to the government have done a brilliant job, and the connection between sensible funding and school standards has become much more accepted.  Even a government with a comfortable majority knows that there would be a price to pay for reneging on their education funding promises.

  • The teaching profession has never been so well-informed

For those who have known nothing different, it may seem fairly unremarkable that teachers routinely refer to the research that informs their practice. For those who have been around for some time, following the research-informed debates on social media is an eye-opener. In my early years of teaching, I would have struggled to identify any current research – that was the province of the university, not the humble classroom teacher. Today, teachers are not just aware of the research, they question, debate and critique it; they reference it against other schools of thinking and come to an independent conclusion.

The much-maligned National Strategies articulated a philosophy of teaching that linked to learning and progress, and shared that with the profession. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to contain it, and the bottomless resource that is the internet provides all the source material anyone could ever need. It’s no coincidence that the rationale for the new Ofsted framework is linked to research, not policy. Now teachers not only know what to do, they also know why, and how to do it better. It also means that the education debate is focusing on the things that matter – curriculum, pedagogy behaviour, SEND, leadership.

  • Young people are leading the way

In the immortal words of Whitney, I believe that children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way. This year of all years, that’s been the case. On a global level, it’s humbling to see adult politicians tying themselves in knots as they try and unravel political crises that are entirely of their own making whilst scoring points and levering their own advantage – meanwhile the fight against climate catastrophe, the true global challenge of our time, is led by young people.

On a local level, I see students engaged in supporting local foodbanks, helping out in street kitchens for the homeless, challenging racism and homophobia, engaging in political discussion. During the recent campaign, I watched a lot of electoral debates – I can honestly say that the audience that was most reflective, open-minded and prepared to listen and engage with arguments was our KS4 and KS5 students at the constituency hustings we hosted. Working with young people brings challenges, but is continually surprising and rewarding.

  • The quality of education in our schools has never been better

A colleague on twitter (thank you @MrPran Patel) recently posted something along the lines of ‘A controversial opinion: Behaviour has not got worse in the last 20 years.’ Judging by the responses, it was not as controversial opinion as expected – most people agreed that things had indeed got better. Every available metric – standards, inspection outcomes, attendance – demonstrates a gradual but inexorable improvement in school performance since James Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech of 1976. Admittedly, it’s been a bumpy ride, and there’s been a price to pay, but the improvements have been real. I started teaching in the late 1980s – I think it’s true to say that the best teaching at that time was probably comparable with the best teaching now, but at that time the worst teaching was far worse, far more widespread and far less likely to be challenged.

One of the most frustratingly predictable events of the year is the way that improved exam results lead to commentators opining that such continual improvement is nonsense and proves only that exams are getting easier. However, given the focus on educational standards over recent decades – improvements in knowledge, greater accountability, use of technology, etc – surely it would be more surprising if things weren’t getting better over time? In the same period of time the 100m world record has been improved significantly – should we conclude that Usain Bolt was racing on a shorter track?

  • The support and fellowship provided by our professional community

Finally, teaching as a profession is essentially a collaborative endeavor. For decades, there have been attempts to embed competition and a market dynamic into the system, with, it has to be said, some success. However, there is an enduring willingness of teachers to appreciate that we are all in this together, with the shared aim of changing young lives for the better. I know that I’m fortunate to work with talented, hard-working and principled colleagues, but I also know that this is not unusual. I believe that generosity, openness and willingness to help is hard-wired into teachers – that’s why we have chosen to do this job.

Happy New Year!

Machacando en hierro frío – the crisis in language learning

I don’t wish to appear eccentric, but I love speaking different languages. My degree was in Spanish along with a bit of Portuguese, and I always have a go at speaking French when I can. This summer, our family holiday was in Sicily, which gave me the excuse to learn some Italian, through a combination of Duolingo, Michel Thomas and listening to Italian internet radio stations. When we got there, I took every opportunity I could to have conversations in Italian, even though to all intents and purposes I couldn’t speak it, and certainly not to a level that would have got a good GCSE pass.

The thing is, I have developed a special technique that allows me to do this: I don’t get embarrassed by speaking a foreign language, even if I’m not sure how to say something correctly. In fact, I enjoy it. I’ll have a go, throw in a few words from other languages, guess what the grammar rule might be, even make a few things up if I think it helps. I wave my arms around, use facial expressions and enthusiastically adopt the accent and even the stance that seems closest to that of a native speaker (hopefully without causing offence).

I realise that this is not typical of my compatriots. If you want a perfect definition of awkward embarrassment, look no further than an English person abroad who has ordered a bottle of wine by using their phrasebook or plumbing the depths of their memory, in their best schoolboy French accent, completely unprepared for the waiter to ask them which particular wine they would prefer. Cue a look of total panic, immediate reversion back to English or a simple repetition of their original order, exasperation and frustration all round.

As a nation, we may be entering a period when our ability to establish good relationships with others around the world becomes ever more important and language is such a key part of that relationship. Whilst it’s true that wherever we go, we can usually find an English speaker, if we can speak the language of our hosts, then that relationship is so much stronger and deeper. The ability to speak more than one language is a life skill that is invaluable in the modern world, not least because of the respect it demonstrates.

Not only that, but the learning of languages is well known to have impact well beyond the subject itself. The understanding of grammar and vocabulary, the ability to solve problems and use inference and deduction, the use of tone and inflection in speech – all are skills for learning and skills for life. My hunch would be that as a school-improvement strategy, ensuring all students were multilingual would lead to phenomenal outcomes across the curriculum.

The irony is of course, that as this skill becomes ever more valuable, our ability and willingness to do this seems to be declining from our already very low base. The numbers studying languages are declining year on year. In February this year, the BBC reported that language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. Their analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England, with a third of schools having dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

Normally, when things are not working on this scale, we look to policy makers, and expect that they will put measures in place to address it. To be fair, in terms of education, that is what they have tried to do. The introduction of the EBacc, followed by its prominent role in the Progress 8 calculation, and reaffirmed by the government ‘ambition’ that 90% of students should study the full EBacc by 2022 is a clear policy direction and should have led to the widespread uptake of languages.

So why hasn’t it? In my view, our examination and accreditation system actively mitigates against the natural development of language skills for most pupils. The ability to communicate effectively is almost impossible to assess out of context, and we can’t reproduce that context in an exam hall. Even in the elements of the course that focus on spoken language, students are trained to have conversations that far exceed the level of independent conversation that they are able to have, so it is inevitably stilted and unnatural.

The fact is GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often ‘machacando en hierro frío’ (flogging a dead horse).

This is a crisis that needs some radical solutions. Almost every single pupil who walks through the doors of our schools has demonstrated that they can master a spoken language. By the age of 6, they have approximately 2,600 words of expressive vocabulary and 20,000–24,000 words of receptive vocabulary (Lorraine, 2008). Why do they all think that learning a language is so hard? We need to understand what it is that has got them to this level of expert language use and replicate it in the next language they learn.

My first suggestion would be to remove MFL from the EBacc and Progress 8, but prioritise it in the curriculum discussions held by Ofsted, including anything relating to cultural capital. Of course, MFL should be there as an academic option, and a highly valued one, but we should recognise that the academic study of a foreign language is different and separate from the ability to communicate in a real-life context. Some people should have the former, everyone should have the latter.

Secondly, language learning should be present throughout a pupil’s school life, treated as a cross-cutting key life skill that all students study, in the same way that they are expected to study PE, Citizenship and RE. What message does it give about the importance of communicating in other tongues, if the majority of students get to ‘drop’ it at the earliest opportunity?

Thirdly, we should accept that conventional teaching of languages has not worked and that we need to look at a different model, one that learns from the things that have helped us all successfully acquire our first language – immersion, motivation, reward. When we learn a language, meaning comes first, grammar second.

Here’s some suggestions – build in some immersive and fun experiences – assemblies entirely in French, tutor time twice a week only in Spanish, PSHE / Citizenship entirely in German or Italian, on wet playtimes put on the Simpsons in Spanish in the school Hall, school dinner orders only accepted in a foreign language. Most importantly, as the adult models, we need to ‘get over ourselves’ and have a go – of all the things to feel shame about, mispronouncing a word in a language we are still trying to master has to be fairly low on the list.

I realise that the chance of my wish coming true is virtually nil, but that doesn’t stop me from suggesting it. By a quirk of history, we are in the unique position of being able to go almost anywhere in the world and finding someone who can speak English. That used to be an advantage, but now it feels more and more like a handicap. Our children’s ability in language learning is among the worst in the whole world – that really is something to be embarrassed about.

Stop! Collaborate and listen…

As someone who leads a small Multi-Academy Trust, I am acutely aware of the range of views about the MAT sector that exist within colleagues and the wider public. If scale of impact is the measure, then MATs have been a huge success. Many can point to their achievements in turning around historic poor performance, in leading debate and innovation, in developing models of leadership across the sector. The sector has gone from pretty much a standing start less than a decade ago to the point where over half of the pupils in the country are educated in academies, and some Multi-Academy Trusts have grown to rival the size and influence of a small Local Authority.

However, it’s an understatement to say that the growth of MATs has not been universally popular. Let’s face it, we haven’t done ourselves any favours by the steady stream of headlines exposing practices that range from the questionable to the clearly immoral, introducing a bonus and expenses culture in some cases that is entirely at odds with the Nolan principles of behavior in public life.  

The worst excesses can be put down to the ‘bad apple’ principle, emerging as the sector became established, drawing up rules and standards as it went along, and fortunately they are increasingly likely to be exposed. However, there are deeply held objections to the core principles underpinning the MAT structure. Having recently been in situations where I have had to defend and justify the role of MATs, including to a hall full of deeply suspicious people, I think that the key objections come down to two main themes.

Firstly, the lack of effective democratic oversight. How does the public who pay our wages ensure that their voice is heard and that poor practice can be challenged? We know that accountability exists – through Ofsted, RSC, performance tables etc – but if I’m a parent who believes that my child has been unfairly excluded as a result of unfair MAT policies, and this particular MAT is based 100 miles away and runs 40 schools, how on earth do I effectively challenge that decision? Where is the independent local democratic accountability that was represented (however inconsistently) by Local Authorities? I worked in an LA Children’s Service at a time when our voice had some authority in schools, and we had some levers to hold schools to account on behalf of an elected local council. No longer. MATs will never fully gain public trust until they are fully accountable to the public.

The second key problem, and the one I want to focus on here, is that MATs seem to be inherently competitive. Many are predicated on a model of continual growth, and their key performance indicators are explicitly tied to competitive criteria – ‘top 20%’, ‘among the best’, ‘well above national average…’ and so on. Norm-referenced public accountability measures such as Progress 8 make it essential for performance not just to be good, but to be better than others.

Even the word ‘Outstanding’ to describe the highest Ofsted grade, which is so coveted by schools and MATs (just look at their vision statements) implies competition. If lots of schools are judged ‘outstanding’, then they no longer ‘stand out’ – the judgement doesn’t simply mean ‘excellent’, but better than the vast majority of other schools.

Of course, it is well-established that competition can bring benefits, and the theories behind New Public Management (Hood 1994, among others) which have been so influential in the redrawing of public services in western countries in the last 30 years have established this principle as a key driver for improvement. The availability of accountability measures, the direct link between pupil numbers and budgets, the prestige and reputation that comes with the public acknowledgement of success – all incentivise us to improve performance urgently and to develop effective practice (according to the theory).  There is undoubtedly evidence to support this analysis, and the idea of competition driving performance is absolutely mainstream.

I believe, however, that the growth of the MAT sector has heightened this process to the point where even if it is beneficial for an individual school or trust, competition between MATs is no longer pushing overall performance forward but is now having an increasingly detrimental effect on the system as a whole.

Firstly, the impact of league table culture distorts curriculum choices. The Ofsted shift in focus away from data and recognising diverse curriculum approaches is welcome, but as long as there are real-world consequences for poor placing in performance tables, then schools will always be driven to ensure that they give themselves the best opportunity to succeed. What if a group of pupils might be better served by focusing on a small number of vocational / entry-level qualifications? Impossible – that would leave 3 empty Progress 8 gaps. How about this high attaining group managing a broader offer by shaving a couple of lessons from their existing subjects? What’s the point – only the best 8 count. I’m not suggesting that it’s quite as cynical as this, but the experience of ECDL was instructive – a qualification that swept across our schools as a way of boosting league table performance. Some have argued that it wasn’t about league tables, it was genuinely used to equip pupils with real-life ICT skills – well, in that case why is almost nobody still using it?

Secondly, excessive competition incentivises schools to remove the most troublesome or hard to educate pupils. This may be as part of a completely legitimate exclusion process, or it could be through unscrupulous off-rolling practices, but let’s be honest, if a pupil has significant behavioural problems, or complex special needs, or is simply making very slow progress, then it is in the school’s objective interest not to have them on their books. I’m not accusing schools of excluding pupils for spurious reasons, but there has to be an impact of the fact that our system actively incentivises us to move them on, or to try and ensure they don’t arrive in the first place. Ask any Headteacher what their response is when they get a call from a parent of a child wanting to move from the school down the road because things aren’t going well – are we welcoming or downright suspicious? We have established a system which rewards those who don’t welcome our most vulnerable pupils.

Thirdly, it works against co-ordinated local initiatives including the sharing of expertise and CPD. Within a MAT, the capacity to improve teaching and learning, or to provide support for leadership development is a valuable currency, and is targeted across the Trust. Where it is offered outside the Trust, for example through a Teaching School, there is often a hefty fee and a lack of accountability for the impact in school. How often in the current climate do schools from a variety of Trusts sit down together and work on strategies to address local issues? (I believe that this was the principle behind the London Challenge, but elsewhere in the country, we’re still waiting for something similar).

In our area, we have the bizarre phenomenon whereby children from some primary schools are not able to take part in curriculum events (taster days, large scale music performances etc) run by the secondary school they will attend in Year 7, because it’s part of a different MAT. There could not be a clearer example of competition having a negative impact on children.

Education is a collaborative enterprise – we get better results when we work together. This is true in a classroom or across a school, but it’s no less true across a system. A MAT that is successful at the expense of other schools and students should not be considered a success. If we want the sector to thrive and gain public support, we need to work together for the benefit of all.

What does that mean in practice? Firstly, celebrate the success of our schools by all means, but not at the expense of others. The way that we take the toxicity out of performance tables is by making it clear that they are deeply flawed and hugely unreliable. Every school that describes their results as ‘in the top 20%’ is reinforcing the myth, likewise every school that puts up a slide at Open Evening showing how they compare in a particular (carefully-selected) measure. (Oh and Ofsted, it would help to get rid of Outstanding).

This could be done tomorrow, led by professional associations and a bit of gentle peer pressure. It’s all well and good the schools at the bottom of the league tables explaining to parents how closely Progress 8 correlates to disadvantage, it would be nice to hear all the schools at the top doing the same, rather than posing for pictures as part of a glowing article in the local paper.

Secondly, we need to work together to provide the most effective (and cost-effective) provision for our most vulnerable children in the locality, both morally and financially. I would like to extend the principle that exists in some areas whereby every child who has an EHCP, or is in danger of PermEx (I realise that I’m describing two very different categories) is the shared responsibility of a partnership of local schools. Additional funding is held centrally by the partnership, and allocated to an appropriate provision, whether that’s a mainstream school, special school or alternative provision. Partnerships could even establish their own APs, or jointly purchase special school places, or step up managed move protocols. In the vast majority of cases, the most appropriate provision is in the local mainstream school, but it will be possible for a partnership to see whether the distribution is equitable or sensible, and to react to circumstances e.g. one of the schools going into an Ofsted category. If we really wanted to establish this principle, we would also find a way of sharing responsibility for outcomes, to ensure that all local schools work together.

There are many other ways we can encourage and celebrate collaboration. I would suggest a simple leadership question for Ofsted – how have you contributed to the outcomes for pupils outside your own school or Trust? Unless a school can answer this positively and convincingly, Outstanding should be off the table.  Schools should also be encouraged to make curriculum resources widely available, to invite others in to observe their great practice, and to feel confident enough to pick up the phone to their neighbouring school when they need to do the same. The teacher networks that have grown so successfully through social media can be promoted and supported by schools. We can build on the example set by organisations such as PixL, CCT, or the professional associations, to unlock the power of collaboration.

In the end, however, it’s a question of integrity and values, as it so often is. It’s difficult to force people to be collaborative and collegiate, but we can celebrate and recognise those colleagues who are. Wherever you are working, if you are working with children and young people, then your success is my success.

Justice League? The problem with performance tables

For reasons that will become clear, I’ve been waiting for a while to write this, but here’s my view: School Performance Tables are misleading, iniquitous and damage the system, and we should move away from them as soon as possible.

This is not an argument against accountability. I’m not arguing against publication of results and I’m not advocating a lack of transparency. I’m specifically talking about the reduction of all the outcomes of students in a school to a single figure or a tiny handful of figures, and the use of that to publicly rank schools, allowing anyone, including parents or prospective employees, to ‘Find and Compare Schools’ as the DfE website banner proclaims.

I’m not even arguing against them on the grounds that I think they’re wrong and unethical (although I do). The case against league tables is that I think they are damaging and ineffective, for three main reasons. They don’t give an accurate picture, they act against the interests of students, and they actively work against school and system improvement.

Firstly, they are inaccurate.

The stated aim of league tables is to help parents know how well a school is doing. This can help them to make sure they choose the right one for their child, and to hold the school to account for performance. However, the reality is that schools are simply too complex and multifaceted for this to give useful information. Each parent will have their own criteria for defining the perfect school – for one it will be a level of academic excellence to facilitate a university place, for another it might be an ability to provide targeted support for a child with special needs, for someone else it may be the opportunities to take part in extra-curricular arts or sports. You might get a sense of this through an Ofsted report, you could probably explore it through a school visit, but there is no way a league table can capture this information. The fact that the key measure changes so often is an indication that there is no absolute measure that satisfies all beholders.

This is before we consider the inbuilt inaccuracy of using a norm-referenced system to make absolute judgements about quality. Every year, we will see the news stories that talk about whether pass rates have gone up or the proportion of top grades in a subject has fallen, with very little mention of the fact that this is entirely the result of decisions taken by Ofqual. Across the board, average attainment of students might have risen, it might have fallen, it seems unlikely that it mirrors exactly the profile of exam passes, but still for every school that rises in the league tables, there’s a school that falls.

Another built in reason for inaccuracy is the time lag between provision and outcomes. League tables are usually accompanied by lurid headlines about the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ schools, but unless GCSE outcomes are the product of cramming and gaming, they are telling you something about progress from KS2 – in other words, a five-year journey. So much could have changed during that period that any sensible statistical analysis would urge extreme caution.

Secondly, they act against the interests of students

How have we evolved a system where the interests of schools can be in direct opposition to the interests of their students? Unfortunately, that is often the case. We have all seen the farcical ‘gaming’ dance that takes place, where schools choose qualifications solely because of the impact they have on league tables. ECDL was a stain on the system, whose sole purpose (if we’re honest) was to hoover up a qualification that gave an advantage in Progress 8 for very little investment of time or teaching expertise. If anyone would argue that they did it because it had merits, I would ask why, as soon as it disappeared from league tables, did virtually every school in the country stop doing it?

It’s still going on. Reports of schools entering whole cohorts for English as a foreign language, regular ‘wink-wink’ emails from companies offering to come in to school for a few days and run a premium qualification that ‘counts in the performance tables’, SEND students forced through inappropriate curricula because it’s better for the school for them to score a 1 or a 2 in a GCSE than to succeed on a functional skills route.

Then there’s the student destined to drag the school down. No wonder permanent exclusions rise as GCSEs loom large. The evidence of off-rolling is stark, schools very often paying a premium for an Alternative Provision to place them on roll, students sitting exams as external students, parents choosing to home-educate at the most crucial time of their academic lives.

Long before we get to the business end of KS4, league tables are having an impact on curricula – extended Key Stage 4 courses, basket-filling, using GCSE assessment criteria from the start of Year 7. I welcome the renewed focus on curriculum that has been given momentum by Ofsted, but fear that unless it reaches deep into Key Stage 4, its impact will be limited. My question to schools would be: what curriculum decisions have you taken that are in the interests of students but may adversely affect your Progress 8 score? It seems inconceivable that the designer of Progress 8 has managed to get the perfect balance of subjects for every child in the country.

Thirdly, they have a damaging effect on school improvement across the system.

True collaboration drives improvement, particularly systemic improvement. It’s well-researched and widely accepted. Indeed, there are many policy initiatives that are explicitly designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of good practice.

To say that high-stakes performance tables militate against collaboration seems axiomatic. The performance tables website is designed to make it easy for parents to use a map tool to find local schools and create a ranking list. When so many schools are desperate for the funding that comes with the student, a low placing on that list can be disastrous. Many great schools, and principled Heads will do what’s right and I know collaboration happens within Trusts or formal partnerships, but how can it be a good thing when the failure of the school down the road, with all the impact on the lives of young people, is good news for me and my school.

At the same time that Ofsted have realized that great schools plan a long-term coherent curriculum journey, with aspirational goals for all students, we are still running a parallel system that priorities short-term solutions, narrows the focus of teaching and learning, and excludes many of our most vulnerable students. We are now evolving a system where the two main accountability mechanisms for schools – Ofsted and Performance Tables – are potentially acting in conflict.

A final point, but not an insignificant one is the impact of league table culture on the individuals at the sharp end, particularly school leaders. My doctoral study looked at the emotional impact of Ofsted ‘Inadequate’ judgements on Head Teachers (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/50957/). These case studies of four remarkable colleagues who went through a public trauma that ate at the core of their professional identity, brought home how personally damaging public naming and shaming can be (for anyone who points out that it is the school, not the Head Teacher that is identified, I can only assume they haven’t been in that position).

I believe that as long as we keep this system, then politicians’ words about school leaders well-being ring hollow.

These are not new thoughts of mine, but I’ve not felt able to be quite so open about them before. You can probably guess why. One of the schools I work in has been at the wrong end of league tables in recent years, and despite the fact that the staff and school community have done a remarkable job in moving the school forward, providing an amazing quality of education and care, to the point where I believe this has been a high-performing school for a couple of years, it’s only now showing through in results. We’ve had a good week, and this year I’ll sleep easy the night before league tables are published, but we’ll do our best to remember what it’s like to be on the other side.

It’s perfectly possible to publish detailed information about a school, including performance data and the most recent Ofsted report, in fact most schools already do. We don’t need league tables, and the sooner we move away from them, the better.

The law of unintended consequences – how a greater emphasis on academic rigour is leading to a decline in academic subjects.

This last week has been a defining week for another cohort of Year 13 students as they have collected their A levels and used them to confirm their place on the next stage. In truth, it has been a week of few major headlines – a slight dip in A and A* grades, entries for girls in Science overtaking boys, minor controversy around grade thresholds in Maths.

However, what was also reported is that in the last year, there has been a 13% decline in the number of students studying English at A Level. This is on the back of a precipitous drop in the proportion of students studying languages over the last few years, and a slow decline in the proportion of students studying History and Geography. Although Science entries are up, most of the subjects traditionally at the heart of the curriculum seem to be in decline (Maths has also declined this year, amid concerns over the impact of new GCSEs).

The irony is that the opposite should be happening, and that the explicit policy direction over the last decade has been to strengthen the traditional curriculum. The introduction of the concept of the EBacc, now a Government ambition for 90% of students at KS4 (monitored by Ofsted), the compulsory resitting of English and Maths in 6th Forms, the downgrading of vocational qualifications – all should be bolstering traditional academic subjects.

The truth is that they’re not, and this decline is moving swiftly past the alarming stage to become irreversible.

When major curriculum or exam reform happens, the impact is not always seen instantly, and can take a few years to work through the system. These reforms are not piecemeal or incoherent. They are based on a Gove-ian vision of the curriculum that asserts that students (and society) are best-served by a rigorous focus on challenging subject matter delivered through a Hirschian ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. They have been supported by policy initiatives, such as EBacc, redesign of performance tables including Progress 8, and the new Ofsted curriculum focus.

I accept that they are based on aspiration and a sincere belief that this approach leads to improvement, including for less-advantaged students. As Michael Gove said at the start of his journey: ‘If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.’

However, there appear to be problems. English is the area that has raised the greatest alarms this time round. According to a report in The Guardian, English language A-level numbers dropped from just under 18,000 in 2018 to less than 14,000 this year. Uptake was also down for English literature, from 41,000 to 37,500. Teachers and school leaders put the blame fairly and squarely at the door of new ‘more rigorous’ GCSE courses, courses that require hugely increased amounts of rote learning, greater use of historical texts and analysis of excerpts. By the time they get to 16, many students have had enough.

The report quoted an assistant headteacher who said: “GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is right that we should have the highest aspirations for all our students, but this should not equate to turning exams into a joyless slog. We are concerned that the current GCSE specifications are failing to encourage a love of English in young people and this year’s entries at A-level appear to confirm

The Department for Education was quick to express that reformed GCSEs in English are “better preparing pupils for further study at A-level.” Well, that may be true, but if they’re not studying it at A Level, it’s irrelevant.

Languages are an area that I have a particular interest in. Simply put, many students no longer study languages at KS5 because they’re too hard and too boring. I’ve had lots of conversations with students to try and convince them of the life-expanding benefits of learning a language, of the range of art and literature that opens up when you learn another language, of the joys of overseas study and the many employment possibilities that open up for language graduates. But it comes down to this – ‘I need the best A-levels possible to get into the best university possible and I’ve got two years to get them, so why would I pick a subject that is too hard and too boring.’ It’s an argument I usually lose.

GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often flogging a dead horse.

I’m in favour of supporting our declining EBacc subjects. I’m totally in favour of academic rigour and challenging our brightest students. However, I’m also in favour of looking at the evidence, and changing a policy that’s not working. This is not an argument about pedagogy or instruction, or knowledge-based approaches – it’s an argument that in a buyer’s market, we need a product we can sell.

How have we got to the point where some of the glories of our education and culture – the study of history, geography, literature, even mathematics – are seen as a chore, or irrelevant by so many? How is it that subjects that should open a door into understanding the world don’t seem relevant to the culture and society of young people?

We need curriculum content that combines modern and historical voices, that draws from sources across the world, that reflects the reality of our students’ world with due diversity in race, gender, sexuality and disability. We also need a balance between content acquisition and student agency, between knowledge and acquisition. Most of all, we need to understand that to get Key Stage 5 right, we need to start with Key Stage 4.

Same Difference

The problem with research is that sometimes it discovers things that are inconvenient. This is particularly irksome when someone takes a detailed, analytical look at something into which you’ve invested quite a lot of time, energy and faith, and discovers that the evidence says that your investment is based on inaccurate information and so is unlikely to pay the dividend you’ve hoped for. When this happens, the best strategy is usually to look away and hope nobody notices – after all, what do the so-called ‘experts’ know anyway?

This might be the scenario following the paper published this week by the Nuffield Foundation, and carried out by UCL and NFER: Better Schools for All: School Effectiveness and the Impact on Pupils. It’s a fascinating analysis of large-scale data designed to answer some key questions about the factors that influence student attainment and school performance. The authors, Alex Bryson, Lucy Stokes and David Wilkinson, provide a clear-eyed and readable summary which throws up some fascinating findings.

There are two in particular that caught my eye and which raise some awkward questions for policy-makers in education. The first is that ‘schools account for a relatively small share of the variation in pupil attainment (not usually more than 10%)’ and the second that ‘Head Teacher characteristics … explained a relatively small part of the variation in school performance’ and in fact the research found ‘no impact on attainment of a change in Head Teacher’.

Academic language sometimes allows remarkable things to slip through, so let me repeat and rephrase. The data shows that the school you go to and the performance of the Head Teacher have a very small impact on how well you do in our education system.

Why is that so significant? Well, we’ve built a system that is absolutely dependent on the opposite being true. How do we deal with school failure? We re-broker, change the Head, ‘turn the school around’. We pay huge salaries to CEOs of favoured Trusts, and laud them for the difference they are making to children’s life chances. We’ve hard-wired competition into our education system through league tables and unlimited parental choice. We have engineered huge penalties for inclusivity and rewards for exclusion. We’ve treated Ofsted judgements as an outcome, as an end in itself. All based on the belief that if only all schools were as good as the best schools, and all Heads were as good as the best Heads, the problem would be solved.

Turns out, according to this data, that’s not true.

Now, that’s not the same as saying that school performance and quality of leadership is unimportant. Although the authors of the report do conclude that ‘attending a ‘good’ secondary school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ secondary school’ this is about the variance between schools, and does not imply that schools don’t have an impact overall. However, it certainly begs the question whether a relentless focus on competition between schools is likely to make the difference. In other words, given that the difference between the best and the worst is so small, the only sensible response is to develop a system designed to improve all schools. A system, in other words, based on collaboration and shared ownership.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Recognise that school improvement is not about the ‘best’ showing the ‘rest’ how it’s done. Every school has good practice and every leader has wisdom to share;
  • Make sure that all the schools in a locality have a shared ownership of the outcomes of all students in that locality – no incentive to ‘off-roll’ or tactically exclude;
  • We do know that teacher quality matters. Give as many opportunities as humanly possible for teachers to collaborate, share and network, in person and on line. Develop teaching through open research and opportunities to study;
  • No more ‘hero’ Heads – understand that this is a team effort;
  • Use current accountability systems – inspection, assessment data – to inform improvement. What a difference might all of that knowledge make if it was focussed on improving the system as a whole?

If there is little difference between the impact of the best and the worst, then trying to improve by closing the gap between them won’t achieve much. The only thing that will make a difference is by working across the system as a whole. A rising tide lifts all ships, as the cliché goes. Like all good clichés, it has more than a grain of truth. Just look at the research.

Reformed characters?

It’s probably not sensible to get too exercised about policy announcements from government ministers at the moment. Given the likely longevity of the current government, it feels akin to rearranging the ornaments on the mantelpiece while fleeing a burning house. However, the recent announcement from Damien Hinds that a ‘character panel’ has been appointed to explore the ‘best ways for young people to build character and resilience’ caught the eye. Initial responses seemed to broadly welcome the fact that the DfE were taking a broader view of the purpose of education, and it was positive that the panel had a range of representatives, many of whom could be trusted to represent the views of the profession.

In the launch, Mr Hinds explained that ‘the reason character and resilience matter so much to me is that they are key to social mobility.’ It’s the sort of statement that has people nodding in agreement, but closer examination raises a few questions. Most importantly, if character is the key to upward social mobility, that seems to imply that inequity in our society is a problem of poor attitude by those at the bottom of the pile, rather than access to opportunity, wealth and family support. If only people would buck their ideas up, they could climb the greasy pole to wealth and success. The few high-profile successes don’t take away the fact that for many young people, the cards that life has dealt them make this extraordinarily difficult.

However, given that strength of character is a good thing in itself, it seems like a positive move to support programmes to develop it in school. Despite the fact that it’s a hugely difficult task to define what character is, it’s undoubtedly true that experiences at school will help shape it. The panel are not starting with a blank sheet of paper of course. There is a helpful list of activities that help develop character, divided into sport, creativity, performing, volunteering & membership, and experience of the world of work. Examples cited include rock climbing, yoga, litter-picking, choir, film making and public speaking.

Now, these are fantastic activities, I am really excited about the prospect of an entitlement for pupils to take part in high quality enrichment activities, particularly for those who would simply not normally be able to access them. If this becomes part of the regular experience of young people, that will be a hugely positive step forward. I can see that investment in these activities, both financial and societal, could transform many young lives.

However, without being churlish, I’m just not convinced that it naturally follows that an exposure to one particular activity builds character any more than another activity. Why does film making build character more than maths for example? Why does debating build resilience more than playing a console game? Are we still in thrall to the Duke of Wellington’s famous aphorism that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton?

That is not to say that character and resilience can’t be developed and strengthened, and in fact I think that many schools are already doing it incredibly well, I just think it’s more complex than finding the right activity, and it will possibly take a greater commitment.

So how do you develop character and resilience? You need three things above all:

You need to know that someone’s got your back, whatever happens. That the adults around you care for you, not just because it’s their job, but because they like you and will always want the best for you. Young people need to fundamentally believe that they have value, and we show that in our daily interactions.

You also need to know that failure is not the end of the road, but a setback from which you can learn and become stronger. That no matter how many times things go wrong, or how badly you’ve messed up, there’s a way back. It doesn’t mean that failure is rewarded or accepted, just that it’s not the end of the road. This is not an abstract concept – we need to examine our attitude to curriculum options, to ability grouping, to permanent exclusion and show that no matter how badly you’ve messed up, you can have the opportunity to do better next time.

Finally, you need to really believe that a different future is possible. If you genuinely think that you are destined to fail no matter how hard you try, then keeping going isn’t so much a sign of a strong character as a sign of stupidity. Young people need role models who can show them how they overcame obstacles to achieve success, and we then need to help them draw up their own road map.

It’s our responsibility as the most influential adults outside of the family to model character, to recognize it and reward it. To make schools a place of safety, challenge and positivity, where young people believe that anything is possible. And if you get the chance to do Tae Kwan Do and orienteering as well, so much the better.