Last week I had a big response when I tweeted in response to another PR thing from Ofsted encouraging schools to download the logos. Get your big shiny Ofsted Validation badge here! Your institutional Gold Star.
I find the whole thing desperately sad and desperately wrong. And just plain desperate. But that isn’t really the issue. Nor is the smug triumphalism of waving the Outstanding flag in the local RI school’s face. Bad as that is, I actually pity those people who feel the need to do that – it’s a symptom of our system and all its ills that so many rational people feel they have to do it. I’m sure there are plenty of people who truly believe that their school is outstanding, small o, better than the good school down the road. But a line is crossed when the Official Verdict is paraded as if it’s a true measure, a meaningful validation of everyone’s effort and achievement – and superiority. Or the quality of leadership. Hubris will bite back in the end. I’ve seen it up close. It’s pretty ugly. Beware.
It’s natural enough to tell ourselves and our communities that we’re hanging up the Outstanding banner as a reward to the staff and students for all their hard work. But never forget – it’s gloss; a bit of tawdry tinsel draped on the concrete slab of reality. Everyone works hard – everywhere; plenty of people don’t get the rewards they deserve and can’t because, in our system, context is king and we can’t all be winners. This is what has been done to us – what we’ve let ourselves turn into: simpering captives, grateful for a kind word from our masters. I don’t want to do it but what choice do I have…..
Hubris and desperation aside, as far as I’m concerned, the big problem is that the whole grading regime is a house of cards of validity. I just can’t believe that, as educated professionals, we allow a system to continue where schools are summed up in one-word judgements in the name of ‘making things simple for the public’. School A: Outstanding. School B: Good. School C: Requires Improvement. (Ok that’s two words.). Patronising, misleading, unreliable, simplistic, unjust, unscientific, banal…. and then lots of expletives. It’s such total b******s, it really is.
I might rant now and then but I also have lots of well reasoned objections to the whole business of school inspection and our wider accountability culture:
- Inspection power is disproportionate relative to the reliability of the process: Let’s get radical on Ofsted reform. Power:reliability:impact ratio is wrong.
- The intensity of accountability pressure is making the system worse (eg teacher recruitment?) Accountability ‘stick’ is taking us to the brink: Time for radical change.
Here, let me explore just two absurdities of the reliability issue.
Summing up a complex organisation in one overall judgement:
Imagine if we did this to cities. Nottingham is a Good city; Leicester is Outstanding. Derby Requires Improvement. This is immediately obvious nonsense. We could devise all manner of metrics to measure various features of cities but the relative weight we give each feature would be arbitrary and, of course, cities are complex and dynamic with unique contexts. Each city provides services and offers a quality of life that varies from area to area, over time and for different sections of the community. People of all kinds will have different perspectives, biases and experiences so, even if we had lots of concrete measures to work with, our City Inspection Team would have immense difficulty condensing all the evaluation into one overall judgement.
Imagine if they over 100 lines of enquiry specified in the city inspection framework -but only a day or two to explore them all. It’s basically impossible to do properly so, very often, they’d be guessing. You can dress up all the multiple ‘gut feelings’ and ‘best fit evaluations’ as professional judgement – or you can accept the process for what it is: guessing. Lots of sub-hunches adding up to one giant hunch. And what good would it serve? All cities require improvement; all have areas or communities that are thriving; their complexity can’t be summed up in meaningful soundbite that does it any justice or serves any purpose.
But schools? Well, that’s what we have, preposterous as it is. All the variables, the complexity, the ebbs and flows over time, the experiences of hundreds or thousands of people, the vast array of achievements and disappointments in all their forms…. all summed up in one judgement. A judgement with consequences.
With a simplistic grading system, members of the public – those people considered too limited to understand real information about schools – have every right to expect Outstanding schools to be better than Good schools. And Good schools are definitely better than those that are Requires Improvement. (RI schools don’t even get a badge.). That would make sense right? But the system simply isn’t reliable enough to have any certainty around that.
Even in my limited knowledge of inspections – the reported experience of multiple inspections from Headteacher colleagues, as well as my various experiences of my own – I’m aware of numerous borderline cases. Lots of inspections kick off with an inspector suggesting that a school is on a cusp between grades. They run around looking for evidence to allow themselves to fall on one side or the other – because that’s what they’re required to do. SLTs burn the midnight oil spinning a data story to turn the judgement one way; a session with a random group of disgruntled Year 8s turns it the other way; a couple of meetings with a group of nervous middle leaders drops things down a bit further ; a run of good news from the book scrutiny gives things a lift….
Each of these events is an unscientific sampling where the personality of the lead inspector is a major factor. There is just no way on Earth that the final judgement ends up being securely Good and not RI or definitely Good but not Outstanding. What’s the difference between a school that is Good with Outstanding features – and one that just sneaks into being Outstanding? The answer: Luck. Good luck or Bad luck. Along the range from low-end RI to top end Outstanding, there is no place you can safely draw a line to separate all schools reliability as belonging on one side or the other. Fingers in the air. Divining rods. That’s what it comes down to.
I’ve heard countless tales of inspectors suggesting they would like to say X but they have to say Y – because them’s the rules; rules they themselves are interpreting in their own way. There are tales of grades turning on one final data trawl of one subgroup, technical issues with reports giving schools a reprieve, a random behaviour event that turned things sour. So – it is absolutely inevitable that, across the country, plenty of schools have Ofsted grades that, on a different day, with a different team and a different set of random choices and events, would have turned into a different grade.
That’s how it is – which would be fine if we were just evaluating schools in the round – but it’s not remotely good enough if we’re going to badge schools up with their ONE WORD GRADE and give it so much status. As I keep saying, to date, no reliability trials have been conducted in secondary schools. None.
What’s the alternative?
Simple. Ditch the grades. My view is that schools would improve more rapidly and teacher retention would improve significantly if we simply produced reports on each school outlining strengths and areas for development – and no grade. There could be one category for special measures – but I would call it Urgent Support – or something that suggests a shared responsibility. Some areas for development could be highlighted as urgent, rather than long-term goals – all kinds of subtleties are possible.
So, come on, let’s ditch the absurdity of grades. Of course there might be resistance from all those leaders whose self-esteem and PR rest on having secured Outstanding – they will need to lose their medals of honour. But they would still have glowing reports that show what they’ve achieved in the round. I think they’ll cope. Let’s talk about schools in the detail they deserve and let’s treat the public with a bit less contempt by making them read school reports instead of just one word. #ditchthegrades