Stories + Views
Accountability: raising or restricting standards?
If you work in schools you will be aware of the recent outbreak of Ofsteditus. Sweeping across the country, causing mayhem and panic, this viral phenomenum occurs every time that the Office for Standards in Education changes it’s inspection schedule.
In the last seven days I have experienced a concerned chair of governors who’d had a briefing at the school where he an IT manager, a major item at the local authority meeting for headteachers and a slot at our local development group meeting. As usual, there is a fair degree of concern that the inspectors are out to get us as the goalposts change once again.
Three years ago my colleagues were in a flat spin about community cohesion. Most were doing great things to involve the local community but were they meeting the specific criteria of the then latest schedule? There were meetings galore, projects, briefings. Everyone was terrified that they would be failed on this new area and that could affect other judgments. Three years later and it has all but disappeared. Now it is all quality of teaching and performance management. What will it be in another three years? How valid are any judgments if they are not grounded in research and based on enduring values and beliefs about what works and what is best?
Of course schools have to be held accountable. Next week I will receive a visit from an LA school improvement adviser. I envisage an open and frank discussion about the school’s strengths and weaknesses, advice on whether we are on the track with our improvement plans, and suggestions for other strategies that we could implement. I will be held accountable, my senior staff will be held accountable, and rightly so. However, it will be a positive experience because we are a school that is doing well and wants to do even better for our children.
Contrast that with any discussion in school we have regarding Ofsted. The conversations immediately become guarded, nobody wanting to let the side down, planning what they need to do to get through the two days.
These two approaches to raising standards, both rigorous and challenging but one supportive and encouraging, the other perceived as punitive and even vindictive, remind me of my own schooldays.
I had two teachers who I worked hardest for. One was an amazing teacher who was steeped in his love of maths. I adored the lessons and wanted to do so well. I had huge respect for him. The other was a French teacher. His bullying approach led me to dread his lessons. I worked hard in order to avoid being humiliated in one of his withering criticisms. Both got results. I dropped French as soon as I could and continued with maths. Now I love learning new languages when I go abroad but it has taken 30 years to get over it.
I have heard of research that shows heads in England probably have more freedom in the way they run their schools than anywhere else in the world, and that this raises standards because allows innovation and creativity to flourish. However, we also have the most accountability in the world as well, and this acts as a limiter to raising standards.
A number of years ago Ofsted published a report that showed schools that innovate got better results. My immediate reaction to this was to wonder which came first – innovation or results? It is certainly a whole lot easier to innovate, to take risks, to push the boundaries if your school is getting a cracking set of results in the first place.
One good bit of news is that judgments will not be norm referenced, so that it could now be possible for all schools to be good if they are attaining well, have children making good progress or they are improving on previous year’s results.
But there are still flaws. When a colleague training to become an inspector tells of a room full of potential inspectors making a range of judgments after watching a videoed lesson, from outstanding to inadequate, it doesn’t fill you with confidence about consistency.
The data will still influence the initial thoughts that inspectors have, which will then modify their judgments on the quality of teaching. And just as the new Ebac will reward those who thrive under exam conditions and fail those who stress out, so some teachers will raise their game when the inspector comes to call whilst others, solidly good all the time, will go to pieces under the additional stress.
One last thought: schools have recently been castigated for their use of the pupil premium with the DfE and politicians asking why the research found in Sutton Trust’s Pupil Premium Toolkit has been ignored by most schools. Perhaps they should include Ofsted in this criticism.
I suspect that the new chief inspector is behind the new emphasis on holding schools to account for the success of their performance management. A quick look in the toolkit shows, however, that performance management is deemed a very poor strategy for raising standards being ‘medium cost, little or no impact’.