Taking Stock of the Education Agenda Part 2

Three of the Best...always challenging and inspiring
Three of the Best…always challenging and inspiring

I started writing this some time ago, taking stock of a range of educational issues based on various influences in the last year, not least of which has been some of the bloggers – as shown here.  I ran out of steam after three sections in Part 1:

  1. Professional Capital
  2. Teaching and Learning
  3. Principled Curriculum Design.

So, to conclude, here are the other areas where I’ve been taking stock.

4. Intelligent Accountability

A lot has been written this year about the very serious flaws in the OfSTED inspection regime, the toxic impact it has on schools without really securing improvement and the extraordinary ‘bad science’ of lesson observations.  I know five schools with Heads who I admire immensely that have moved from Outstanding under the previous framework to Good under the latest one.  These were great schools before and they still are.

I’ve heard a few Heads talk about OfSTED in a positive way. However, these tend to be either Heads of schools that are Outstanding (and like how it makes them look good) or they’re people who love data and thrive on systems. Here they believe their lesson judgements are proper ‘measures’ and teachers are paid accordingly; teachers are refered to as being 2s, 3s and 4s; they use decimalised GCSE grades and three-weekly RAG rating of student performance. OfSTED rules.  They are more likely to think of interventions or exam tactics to improve outcomes rather than improving teaching and learning. (I know these people, believe me.) For me, these Heads sound as though they are describing regimes; not schools.  Obviously context is everything; some schools are really tough. But let’s not confuse desperate measures with an ideal for education. The consensus amongst most of my colleagues remains that high-stakes OfSTED inspection isn’t raising standards in a deep and sustained way.

However, I am optimistic that the tide is turning:

a) There is growing recognition and a widening debate around whether OfSTED is fit for purpose; whether inspecting a school in two days can adequately gauge it’s effectiveness; whether the quality and consistency of inspectors is or could ever up to the task; whether the net effect of OfSTED in its current form is sufficiently positive (if at all) relative to the enormous costs.   OfSTED Reform is firmly on the table.

b) Performance Measures have finally been recognised as a barrier to improvement where they create perverse incentives.  Floor targets and threshold measures have been a catastrophe. They’ve gone – well, nearly.  Having met Tim Leunig, one of DFE architects of the new measures, I’m satisfied that these changes have been approached in a robust, rounded, sensitive and intelligent manner.  Progress 8 makes sense in so many ways where the current system has failed.  ‘Three levels of progress’, the least meaningful measure of all time has also gone.  Schools have been put to the sword on that sandcastle of data delusion for too long.  The new measure uses comparisons explicitly drawn from comparing national profiles at KS2 and KS4 with school profiles; it is what is and, whilst simplistic, it isn’t pretending to be a measure of learning in any way.

c) Recent exam reform from the DFE and grading intervention from OfQual have been unpopular for lots of good reasons – it might be better to include people from schools in discussions and to give them time to respond, rather than change mid-course. However, we do now have a qualifications landscape where grade inflation and the gamut of tactical decisions and poor inter-school moderation have been neutralised.  This represents a new starting position from which genuine improvement at school level can be better recognised.  All the smoke and mirrors of ‘miracle turnarounds’ with schools adding 50% 5A*-C in two years – (as if) – will be a thing of the past.  This means that at school level, with less data-poker to play, it will become sensible to show progress through learning evidenced in students’ work – and you can’t fake that. There’s hope, therefore, that teaching and learning will have to be THE focus in every school. And that means better CPD and a deeper approach to professional learning all round.

d) The Grim Reaper has his scythe out for Lesson Observations.  The game is up. It’s a busted flush. After a decade of ever-increasing Hoop-Jumpification, diminishing the status of our professional judgement in the classroom, a giant pin of Evidence has burst the bubble of sanctity surrounding the OfSTED-style drop-in observation.  It’s unreliable, counterproductive and ineffective, making assumptions about progress and learning that can’t ever be sustained. (See Kev Bartle on the myth of progress in lessons).  I can see a time in the near future when the blinkers of dogma will come away completely… At KEGS we’ve already introduced a longer-term model and soon the grades will also go. As for PRP…well, hopefully more Heads will recognise the disgrace that this is. Hopefully.

e) School to school support and partnership are growing with every week.  The models for partners offering challenge as well as support are being developed; this has got to be the way forward. OfSTED can inspect the quality assurance processes but not do the quality assurance itself.

With a changing landscape around OfSTED and accountability, there are some definite bonuses that schools and teachers need to exploit.  There is now more scope than ever for schools to build up their curriculum from first principles and to design assessment regimes to match.  This used to be a school’s job; a teacher’s role.   Over the course of time from 1988 to 2012, we seem to have forgotten this, assuming that these things came from on high by default.  We’ve now got a chance to re-skill the profession in these key areas – if we take it.   (It makes me sad to hear of teachers who can’t imagine setting an exam or assessment that has any value – because how would they know what the grade boundaries are? It’s like fabric machinists who’ve forgotten how to sew.)

5. Structures

I’m one of the people who believe that tinkering with structures for schools should not be the central agenda for system improvement.  It seems to me that where people don’t really get what teaching and learning are all about, they tend to talk about school types as if, by changing how people are grouped in institutions, we can secure significantly better learning.  My views on selection etc are all recorded here.  (Basically I’m suggesting that it would be more honest of people who campaign against selection to campaign FOR universal house price selection because essentially that’s the alternative.) People who claim that Free Schools or Academies inherently make the system better – are….well, they’re wrong.  Increasingly dividing schools into Maintained vs Academies will be redundant.  In Chelmsford all the schools are academies bar one; and they’re pretty much the same schools as they were before; we just get paid in a different way.

However, I think the next few years will see an even more rapid acceleration of the formation of local Multi-Academy trusts, joining schools across and between primary and secondary sectors into cohesive units.  I’ve visited some superb examples recently and I’m more and more convinced of their value and their superiority to the LA model as an engine for sustained school improvement.  There’s a big difference between LA officers having a professional duty to support a school that is struggling and a sponsoring Academy in the neighbourhood, where the Exec Head wakes up every day feeling utterly responsible for that school’s success, with their professional credibility on the line.   Crucially, I don’t think the national chain model delivers the same sense of local commitment and personal accountability as the local Exec Head and MAT model does – time will tell.

A short comment on Teaching Schools: Big 6? It’s about three things too many.  I’ve signed up my school to be a partner in three separate but connected TSAs. I’m really confused… it doesn’t feel like a system yet; if feels messy and precarious. Again, time will tell — but I’m still not sure why we’re doing this.

The big looming cloud of doom at my school is 2017 where the Sixth Form funding transitional protections run to zero and we face a 10% hole in our budget. We’re all being levelled down to the thin pickings a minimum funded Sixth Form curriculum can offer.  We’ve got a fight on our hands there…are we heading for lecture-style mass-delivery of Maths and Physics? Maybe not, but Sixth Form provision as we know it isn’t going to last much longer.

6. Technology

Finally, just where are we with the edtech stuff?  As I said last year, the consensus is absolute that it’s not about the tech; it’s about the learning you can achieve with the tech. However, a number of teachers and schools are showing what can be done.  My own explorations with Edmodo and an ipad have led to an ever-increasing sense that we’re on an unstoppable journey to integrate more technology into the everyday no-nonsense of routine school life. Here’s why:

  • Mobile devices provide on-hand integrated multimedia functionality and online search capability that make it easy to capture, share and create stuff with the ideas we generate in lessons. It makes lessons more like being at home where kids and teachers do things like this for fun and for interest. It’s how we live and it’s more and more how we learn. Capture, store, manipulate, share.. and so on.
  • Workflow is getting easier. I’m oldskool – I  still use a USB; but the cloud is there for the taking.
  • Online teacher-class communities are a powerful means of sharing information between lessons.  Using Edmodo has opened my eyes to this. It doesn’t necessarily teach them the facts any better; but it helps us to function in our busy lives, so the confines of a lesson slot do not have to limit us.  In that sense we’re all better prepared for the learning in class.  I get email notifications and messages all the time from my students; it’s part of life… this is normal to them and will only become more so.
  • As Chris Waugh and David (Deputy) Mitchell show with their work on student blogging (eg the fabulous Edutronic) there is real learning value in giving students an authentic audience for their writing. They step up.  The world is out there for us to reach; it’s not necessary for learning (obviously) but it’s powerful when you create the structure for it. Their writing is not just for the teacher – it is for the anyone who wants to read it.  Much like writing this blog.. I’m conscious of who might read it and it motivates me to do the best I can. I’m accountable for the quality; I’m stepping up.
  • The raft of online tools available provide us with ways of giving feedback during the drafting of work. As with the tale of Austin’s Butterfly, constructive feedback and redrafting are massively powerful in leading learners to excellence.  Chris Waugh models this brilliantly using WordPress; others uses Edmodo; others use Google docs.  Feedback that is dynamic and produced in situ seems very powerful; an approach that is sure to grow in the coming years.

As far as I’m concerned, none of this is gimmicky or incompatible with fairly traditional, rigorous knowledge-driven pedagogy.  In many ways, it’s just inevitable.  In that context, I can’t believe that we still waste so much energy talking about controlling or restricting all of this.  For me it’s simple: Device on the table; let’s get on with the learning.

Roll on 2014. It’s going to be a big year.  The door to the cage has been unlocked…..actually we’re already out in the open. Some people just haven’t realised yet.


  1. I read your blogs in awe and sorrow. Awe because your values seem so clear and driven by the professional integrity absolutely necessary when the education currency has been so debased by the false gold of political expediency.And equally because as a genuinely independent headteacher of an avowedly broad ability school in the private sector, I see formerly great state schools being reduced to empty husks by the pressure to conform to the 2 legs good 4 legs bad theologies you speak of.


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