OfSTED and 'Outstanding schools’ are harming national educational attainment

rogertitcombe's picture
 6

Consider these quotes from this recent Guardian article.

The system is now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of groups of, usually more vulnerable, children”. Some schools were found to be engaged in “aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students”. Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The reason is and always has been obvious.

The market imposed by the 1988 Education Reform Act requires performance indicators to drive it. These have been various arbitrary combinations of the aggregated attainment of pupils through KS2 SATs (primary) and GCSE (secondary), on the assumption that the large variations in these measures to be found between schools reflect variations in the effectiveness of the education provided. This ‘common sense’ assumption has long been known to be false.

By far the greatest factor in the variation of school attainment is the mean cognitive ability of admission intakes. School heads have always known that this is closely mapped by the relative affluence of postcodes, as is confirmed by Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data going back decades.

So the formula for school success has always been to attract children from wealthy postcodes and deter those from poorer ones. This needs power over admission policies that Academies, Free Schools and many faith schools have, but LA schools do not, hence this is the main incentive to become one of these sorts of government favoured schools.

The ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

In this important Local Schools Network article, Fiona Millar questions the common assumptions about improvements in school standards claimed by Labour and Conservative governments. She writes as follows.

“It is still debatable whether “standards” have improved.  I discovered very quickly while researching my book that the lazy assumption (of which I have been guilty) that children are better educated, because more get to the expected level at the end of primary and secondary school, masks a real can of worms. Existing independent tests of competencies such as spelling and mathematical concepts carried out by academics at some UK universities over the last 30 years, seem to show that in terms of what children can do and know little has changed. Meanwhile we aren’t even really clear about what we mean by standards, which currently only relate to exams and test results rather than any wider interpretation of teaching, learning, behaviour or personal development.” [Especially development of cognitive ability]

Professor Rob Coe of Durham University argues that despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory, and many of the most commonly advocated strategies for improvement are not robustly proven to work.

The anti-Flynn effect, detected in the US and UK, the countries most affected by marketisation-based educational reforms, suggests that while exam-based attainment has been rising steadily, this has been at the cost of a decline in cognitive ability. Put simply, our school leavers are getting dimmer because passing exams to benefit their schools has been prioritised over the acquisition of deep understanding that provides much greater benefits to their students and society as a whole.

John Mountford and I have been researching the ‘Attainment Gap’, falsely claimed by the government, The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation to be a result of low standards in secondary schools in northern England.

John has obtained Y7 intake SATs and CATs data for secondary schools along the ‘M4 Corridor’ in southern England. Most of these schools serve prosperous communities that provide their primary and secondary schools with high mean cognitive ability intakes. But islands of relative deprivation exist along this channel of affluence. Some striking patterns emerge as can be seen in this table.

 

Sch%

 

FSM

SATs

 

cohort

SATs

 

FSM

CATs

 

cohort

CATs

 

FSM

SAT/CAT

 

cohort

SAT/CAT

 

FSM

OfSTED
K4108103108981.001.05O
D9106103106991.001.04O
B1010310097911.061.10G
A12105102100931.051.09G
L14106102106971.001.05G
J201029899901.061.09RI
H4410110094951.071.07Inad

 

The SATs figures are the means of the Reading and Maths KS2 test scores. The CATs figures are the means of the Verbal, Non-Verbal and Quantitative scores. The SATs and CATs figures cannot be directly compared because unlike the CATs, the SATs are not standard scores in the statistical sense. In the 2017 SATs, DfE announced that 61% of pupils had met the ‘expected standard’ and attained a scaled score of at least 100. It is therefore clear that the DFE ‘expected minimum scaled score’ of 100 cannot be the 50th percentile if  61 percent attained it last year. Nevertheless, when the SATs and CATs data are compared, clear patterns emerge.

The latest OfSTED grade (last column) follows the mean cognitive ability of the intake, and this in turn reflects the relative affluence of the communities served, as shown by the %FSM column. Note the huge disparities in mean cognitive ability. Schools K & D (Outstanding) have mean intake CATs scores of 108 (70th percentile) & 106 (66th percentile).  Schools B, A & L (Good) have CATs percentiles of  58th, 63rd & 66th. All these are well above the national average (50th percentile). School J (Requires Improvement) has a mean intake CATs score at the 47th percentile and School H (Inadequate) has a mean intake CATs score at the 34th percentile. The %FSM follows a matching pattern, so confirming the observation in the Guardian article. We have not ‘cherry picked’ these schools.

The differences in the intake SATs scores (108 – 101) are less than for the intake CATs scores (108 – 94) showing that intensive preparation for SATs in Y6 can ‘bring up’ the scores of lower ability pupils, thus saving their primary schools from the dire consequences of falling below the ‘floor targets’. However this is a short term boost that is not reflected in the CATs scores or the internal assessments of the secondary schools to which they transfer. The secondaries are lumbered with SATs-based GCSE targets that the schools with lower ability intakes (eg J and H) struggle to meet so they incur negative data-based OfSTED judgements before the small team of inspectors even set foot in the schools for their superficial visits. Unlike with the large teams of inspectors involved in the week-long OfSTED  inspections of the 1990s, current reports are written to support the data-based judgements already made, making it impossible for the inspectors to take account of any available CATs data and any high quality teaching and learning that might be observed from spending longer in a much greater number of lessons. For example, in my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness (intake CATs score 85 – 16th percentile) good reports were received in 1990 (HMI), 1995, 1998 & 2004 (OfSTED), even though the ‘floor targets’ were never achieved. I retired in 2003 and the school was declared ‘inadequate’ in 2007 along with the town’s two other mainland non-faith schools. This just happened to coincide with what turned out to be a disastrous Academisation plan, supported by the Labour-led Cumbria County Council, that has led to 200+ Barrow students now travelling every day by train and bus to the LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston.

Which brings me back to the ‘northern schools attainment gap’ issue about which I have also written here and here.

I obtained the full list of allegedly failing northern schools that gave rise to the ‘attainment gap’ allegation. I then tried to find some such schools that use CATs, without success. It is very much in the interests of such schools to screen their Y7 intakes with CATs tests. Otherwise the schools and their LA or MAT ‘controllers’ have no sound evidence on which to judge the GCSE attainment of their students and therefore no basis for challenging any allegation that they are ‘failing’ if in fact they are actually achieving in line with their mean intake cognitive ability or better. LA schools are not ‘controlled’ by the LA in the way that Academies and Free Schools are controlled by their Multi Academy Trusts, as Henry Stewart points out here.

It might be thought that the Labour Local Authorities that might be expected to be supporting their allegedly failing schools would be encouraging, if not requiring, CATs screening, but this is clearly not the case. However, CATs data raise difficult presentational issues for school heads and LAs. In my headship school it was not possible for me to argue in public that the mean intake cognitive ability of our school was so low (16th percentile) that our GCSE results were in fact much better than the CATs predictions, with lots of A and A* grades from the the small number of our CATs 100+ students. I could foresee the headline in the local paper: BARROW HEAD BLAMES THICK BARROW KIDS FOR SCHOOL’S POOR RESULTS. This kind of populist misinformation is only possible because the basic mechanism of marketisation, which appeals to flawed common sense, has never been challenged by any political party.

It is not possible to validly judge the effectiveness of a school from its aggregated exam results. This is because intake cognitive ability, which is not even recognised as a factor by the DfE and OfSTED, is a far greater cause of variation in the aggregated exam results of schools than any other school-based differences.

The LEA (as was) understood this very well, but local councillors did not want to know. Who would vote for someone who calls their kids thick? Soon after my retirement the Labour County Council stopped CATs screening in all of its secondary schools, so depriving them of data very useful for the diagnostic identification of specific learning difficulties and for devising high quality accountability and targeting systems, but by then LEAs had been abolished and, as in many other LAs, the ‘Children’s Services’ department was not led by an education specialist. So I was not unduly surprised by the lack of interest in CATs screening by other northern Labour controlled LAs.

However I did find one large Academy (OfSTED Outstanding) that uses CATs as the basis of a fair banding admissions system. Located in a socially deprived area, this prevents the school from being overwhelmed by local low CATs score pupils and so meeting the same fate as the surrounding LA schools that are bound by LA proximity based general admissions arrangements. This means that the Academy can ‘cherry pick’ the most able students from its locality and further afield while rejecting the majority of its local low CATs students, of which there are many. This lowers the mean intake cognitive ability of the surrounding schools even further making it ever more difficult to achieve the ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ targets determined from the inflated SATs scores produced by their primaries, themselves threatened by their own floor targets set without any cognitive ability evidence. Thus have the large number of failing schools been created in this and other northern Local Authorities. This ‘fair banded’ Academy is the ‘large school’ whose SATs and CATs data are discussed in this article.

The whole complex issue of the use of ‘fair banding’ for schools serving low cognitive ability communities is extensively covered in Part 4 of my book ‘Learning Matters‘, which is a case study of the CATs based admission systems of Mossbourne Academy and the London Borough of Hackney. In short, I conclude that ‘fair banding’ admissions systems administered by a Local Authority with universal Y6 CATs screening work well, explaining the success of the Hackney system. But CATs based admissions systems used by Academy MATs, but not available to neighbouring LA schools condemn them to constant fear of OfSTED on account of  low GCSE attainment, pushing them to adopting coaching, cramming and extremely controlling discipline systems similar to those that have been introduced in some high profile Free Schools.

So how can I argue that OfSTED is having a negative effect on national education standards? OfSTED, like HMI that preceded it is the national inspector and regulator of schools. Before the 1988 Education Reform Act, HMI, which was independent of government, inspected schools and LEAs to ensure high standards of teaching and learning. Where problems were found HMI would act to ensure that appropriate action was taken to restore standards to the uniform high level that parents and public expect in all our schools. This would be done in co-operation with LEAs, which could ‘move on’ ineffective headteachers and provide additional support and advice to the school. LEAs employed large teams of experienced ‘inspector/advisors’ who were almost always experienced former teachers/heads of department. There was never any question of ‘closing schools’ or seeking to undermine the long term confidence of parents in them.

OfSTED, on the other hand, is completely different. It accepts the marketisation model that underpins the 1988 Act and is the ‘enforcer’ of government education policy. The ideological basis of the model is that a ‘free market’ in schools that forces them to compete with each other is the best way of raising standards. So the government published SATs and GCSE ‘performance data’ for schools to drive local School League Tables to encourage parents to choose the ‘best’ schools and avoid the ‘worst’.

As a further ‘twist of the screw’ OfSTED introduced its four grade, inadequate to outstanding’ system of judging schools. The assumption was that failing schools must be a consequence of failing to apply market philosophy to their running, so the solution is to close such schools, so forcing parents to send their children to ‘better’ ones, or have the schools taken over by more ‘market aware’ Academies and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs)’

This philosophy has been so dominant that it has been accepted as ‘normal’ by all the UK political Parties. But there is another way and it works. Here are some features of the Finnish education system, which is regularly judged by international PISA tests to be much more effective than the market-based systems of England and the USA.

There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school.

 There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

There is no business culture in Finnish schools.

 All schools are student-centred.

Therefore since OfSTED is a major driver of an education system based on a false and failing ideology, it is the problem rather than the solution. The first step in its reform must be the removal of the four grades, on the principle that all schools must be good schools and that if they are not then it is the job of the state to bring this about as a matter of urgency, rather than waiting for ‘market forces’ to produce winners and losers.

So why abolish the concept of ‘Outstanding Schools’? Surely this just encourages all schools to become better? The main reason is well put in the Guardian article.

Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The degree to which an ‘outstanding school’ achieves its status inevitably damages its neighbouring competing schools, robbing them of their more able students and dumping upon them their less able and more problematic ones.

But there is worse. Anyone that watches ‘Kirsty and Phil’ on ‘Location, Location, Location’ will have heard them referring to desirable properties ‘being close to outstanding schools’. Such properties can command much higher prices, especially in affluent areas where competition is fiercest. Such addresses then become out of reach of  parents to either rent or buy. These excluded parents must then ‘make do’ with less popular schools. Not only is this assumed by the government to be ‘inevitable’ it is seen as evidence of ‘the market working its magic’.

Except that as we have seen from John Mountford’s research and the Guardian article, there is little evidence that ‘outstanding’ schools are necessarily more effective at anything other than attracting the most cognitively able students and deterring the least able. They are therefore an engine for increasing social inequality.

Remember the ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

So the aim of The Sutton Trust of enabling more FSM children to get into ‘outstanding’ schools, will achieve nothing for them.

It is easy to understand the concern of the political left with reducing inequality. I support it, but it requires taking ‘markets’ out of the provision of providing essential services like education if it is to be achieved. Finland shows the way.

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Comments

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/07/2018 - 10:56

You're right that it's difficult for a head to publicly declare that the school's intake comprises mainly children with low scores (whether CAT or SATs or any other measure).    This is interpreted as saying the pupils are dim.  No head wants that.  It would be hurtful to pupils and their parents.

Progress 8 is supposed to show pupils' progress during Key Stages 3 and 4.  But it's flawed.  First, it measures alleged progress from SAT results in maths, reading and writing.  It's unclear how progress in, say history or MFL, can be measured by looking at results in the three SAT subjects.  And pupils with previously low attainment (as measured by SATs) are less likely to take the eight subjects required to calculate P8.


rogertitcombe's picture
Thu, 12/07/2018 - 11:23

This is interpreted as saying the pupils are dim.  No head wants that.  It would be hurtful to pupils and their parents.

And neither should it ever be necesssary. The issue only arises because the government publishes school performance data to drive the market in school choice.  But, it is not possible to validly judge the effectiveness of a school from its aggregated exam results. This is because intake cognitive ability, which is not even recognised as a factor by the DfE and OfSTED, is a far greater cause of variation in the aggregated exam results of schools than any other school-based differences.

And pupils with previously low attainment (as measured by SATs) are less likely to take the eight subjects required to calculate P8.

This is true and it discrminates against such children in two ways. First, it deprives them of the right to a full, broad and balanced comprehensive education because they are less likely to get performance table GCSE credits for the school. This is deeply immoral. Second because such studies are rich in possibilities for cognitive stimulation and consequent growth in general intelligence, which is what they most need, which has been denied them by the SATs and GCSE 'cramming culture' adopted by schools to succeed/survive in the market.

But of even more importance is the consequence for the secondaries of low cognitive ability (often FSM) primary pupils being successfully 'crammed' for SATs resulting in inflated attainment 8 and progress 8 targets that are impossible to meet for schools admitting a high proportion of such pupils. This is the source of the 'attainment gap', that can only be effectively addressed by providing cognitively demanding, rather that performance target driven, education for all children at all key stages. Our marketised system generates huge perverse incentives against this, unlike the much more successful non-marketised education systems of, for example, Finland.


rogertitcombe's picture
Thu, 12/07/2018 - 13:52

Fional Millar has another excellent article in the Guardian about the horrendous perverse incentives on schools to behave really badly.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/12/st-olaves-schools-...

She writes, "The best for my child/best for my school approach has run its course. We know now there is “collateral damage” everywhere. Let’s hope the next 30 years can be different."

Absolutely right.

However, Fiona still hasn't fully grasped the liberating effect of abandoning the marketisation culture, which we have to keep reminding ourselves, is absent from the world's most effective education systems. She writes, "More imaginative ways of holding schools to account need to be developed; either by counting the results of the pupils who have left in the performance measures, or introducing area-wide accountability, in which the responsibility for every child in an area becomes the responsibility of all schools in that community. "

Fiona, counter-intuitive thought it is, you can't hold schools to account on the basis of their aggregated exam results because intake cognitive ability, which is not even recognised as a factor by the DfE and OfSTED, is a far greater cause of variation in the aggregated exam results of schools than any other school-based differences. So there need be no published 'performance measures' to confuse and mislead parents.

Nor should you have to. In a reformed education system schools would be held to account jointly by expert inspector/advisors in re-created Local Education Authorities (accountable to the local electorate) and to a reformed expert HMI (accountable to the taxpaying public as a whole).


Brian R. Wilson's picture
Sun, 15/07/2018 - 17:34

I applaud this analysis. The crude nature of Ofsted judgements as part of the marketisation of state education needs to be exposed. I'd like to highlight your point about the way in which HMI and LEA advisors would work together to improve schools without destroying the morale of children, parents and teachers. (I speak as a Primary School head teacher from 1981 to 2002.) Ofsted inspectors have never seemed to mind their findings being tabloidised in local rags. Perhaps because their intention all along was to be a main weapon in central government's discrediting of LEA based state education. My 9 year-old granddaughter read about her own school's negative Ofsted report in a newspaper. She was upset and somehow felt responsible. Ofsted inspectors should be ashamed to be part of a process that allows such a thing to happen.


John Mountford's picture
Mon, 16/07/2018 - 19:48

Unfortunately, Brian, few understand how Ofsted is linked with the aggressively marketised system in education as promoted by successive governments. With the help of a lazy media, the government is winning the spin war hands down. This is why Roger and I are determined to keep banging away with our data campaign. Our challenge is to get parents and the young people themselves better informed. Armed thus, they will be equipped to demand that politicians answer questions they would rather were never asked. I would urge you to encourage other colleagues and friends to read Roger's blog. In the autumn we will formally publish our initial findings. Please look out for that, here and on Roger's own website.

You are right in your observation, Brian. What is happening to our schools and therefore to our children and young people is shameful. We are pushing hard with various individuals in the media and through my own MP to end the spin. It is our intention to identify how the system is failing our children. We seek to clarify what needs to be done to reverse this global trend that sees education as a market, to be exploited for commercial gain. Those who are most affected, understand it is a vital public service but don't know how to protect it. Parents need to be provided with the information to add to their own intuition that it is a service that has to be made locally accountable, reflecting the needs of the community it serves and not the power-brokers who stand to profit from it.


John Mountford's picture
Mon, 16/07/2018 - 19:47

Unfortunately, Brian, few understand how Ofsted is linked with the aggressively marketised system in education as promoted by successive governments. With the help of a lazy media, the government is winning the spin war hands down. This is why Roger and I are determined to keep banging away with our data campaign. Our challenge is to get parents and the young people themselves better informed. Armed thus, they will be equipped to demand that politicians answer questions they would rather were never asked. I would urge you to encourage other colleagues and friends to read Roger's blog. In the autumn we will formally publish our initial findings. Please look out for that, here and on Roger's own website.

You are right in your observation, Brian. What is happening to our schools and therefore to our children and young people is shameful. We are pushing hard with various individuals in the media and through my own MP to end the spin. It is our intention to identify how the system is failing our children. We seek to clarify what needs to be done to reverse this global trend that sees education as a market, to be exploited for commercial gain. Those who are most affected, understand it is a vital public service but don't know how to protect it. Parents need to be provided with the information to add to their own intuition that it is a service that has to be made locally accountable, reflecting the needs of the community it serves and not the power-brokers who stand to profit from it.


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