I wonder how much longer we will go down the accountability road we’re on before politicians, DFE, Ofsted and some of the beneficiaries of the current system realise just how bad things are; before they realise that they themselves are making things worse; before they change tack.
You only have to read the powerful recent blog by Vic Goddard and the retirement comments by Stephen Tierney to realise that we’re in a terrible place. It shouldn’t be the case that really good people feel this way about the system they’ve given their whole professional lives to. Even putting aside my own experience of ‘head-on-a-spike, thrown under the bus’ humiliation, I know far too many good people who no longer work in schools because the system spat them out, crushed and demoralised. These are not isolated cases. It’s endemic.
The signs of increasing desperation in the recruitment of teachers and leaders can be seen everywhere. I know schools with whole departments run by temporary non-specialist staff where a whole curriculum is delivered via a damage limitation diet, held together by a few over-stretched leaders in a permanent state of holding the fort, hoping for the cavalry that never arrives.
When I go abroad to work in international schools I often want to say “ah… so here’s where all the teachers are”. Why are they there and not here? Because they have a healthy work-life balance; they work in a culture of healthy, responsible professionalism – not one of excessive ‘gun-to-the-head’ target-chasing and hoop-jumping; they have a good level of professional autonomy and teach students who are not pushing them to their emotional limits every day. Sounds good right?
So, how do we shift the system to get to a position where teaching or leading schools in the UK is widely regarded just the BEST JOB? I think we need to tear up the accountability regime we have now and build something new. Here’s a few elements of that:
Ofsted Grading has to go:
For as long as our system promotes the idea that different groups of strangers can walk into different schools for a couple of days and arrive at a consistent, reliable set of graded judgements, we don’t have intelligent accountability. All the Ofsted people you ever meet are nice people who mean well but it seems impossible within Ofsted culture to contemplate the idea that, just possibly, the system they operate is making things worse, not better. The new framework, with grades firmly in place, won’t change anything. As the inspection teams emerge from their ‘bringing the human element into inspection’ training, we’re set for a raft of perverse behaviours as schools try to second-guess the particular biases and foibles of their teams. We’ll have school X judged RI by team A that is no worse than school Y judged Good by team B. Ofsted can’t even really be bothered to test this out.. it’s more or less a shoulder-shrug: inspection will always be imperfect. Oh, we know. WE KNOW.
Of course we need some accountability but here’s my suggestion: Just get every school doing the equivalent of Challenge Partners, with grade-free reports published to parents and let Ofsted verify that CP processes have been followed and do safeguarding checks. That’s it. You can’t ever be sure all Good schools are better than all RI schools do don’t lie about it and pretend you can. Just keep schools checking each other, learning from each other, focusing on strengths and areas for improvement…. . and drop the whole gun-to-head machinery that drives so much toxic, stress-inducing big cojones behaviour around the system.
Put Progress 8 in its place.
Progress 8 has some value. It’s useful information for school leaders and governors to have a metric that includes all the grades of all students and gives some indication of progress between the KS2 and KS4 bell-curves in a broad averaged way. But that’s the end.
In addition to the horrendous demoralising zero sum element, where half of schools must be negative by definition, it’s simply far too noisy, too crude an average, too sensitive relative to an unstable baseline and too context dependent to serve as a way of comparing individual schools across a system. I know a school ABC with P8 = 0.35 led by a solid Head, solid staff and regular students doing simple things well but nothing spectacular and not busting a gut. Meanwhile elsewhere I know a school XYZ with P8 = -0.25 with a hugely talented head and staff working tirelessly week in, week out against the odds, doing everything anyone could imagine that could be done. The numbers don’t reflect the inputs. The comparison doesn’t stack up. Context is everything. I won’t detail the differences.. but essentially in each case contextual factors account for the scores more than anything the schools are doing or not doing.
So, let’s apply that ‘intelligent accountability’ frame to P8. Use it as an internal measure amongst others; use it as a lever for improvement if it helps identify areas of weakness within the P8 framework.. but let’s ditch the data-garbage illusion that beyond a very broad brush with a huge error margin, it serves as a reliable and meaningful way to rank and compare schools; let’s ditch the assumption that a higher P8 means “a better school”. If we do that, then a whole host of bad behaviours will stop: the incentive to off-roll students in Year 10 and 11, the incentive to narrow the curriculum down to the bare bones, the incentive to ditch arts because they don’t count enough… all of that will stop.
Break open the bell-curve cage
This refers to the graveyard that Nicky Morgan created when insisting on a pass/fail threshold for the new 1-9 grading system. We have a system that deliberately labels 30% of students as failures in any exam. Yes – scandalous I know. THIRTY PERCENT of all students are in the bottom 30%. A national disgrace. We need to think very hard about this. We are just so conflicted on ideas of success. If we pull the league table infrastructure down, we open the door to a wider, Bacc-style curriculum that gives value to all kinds of successes; we can start to give value to foundation level qualifications again, allowing students to bank successes instead of leaving with so little. There are risks here too but let’s face it – what we do now isn’t fair for way too many students. Let’s re-imagine examinations so we have students passing Grade One instead of failing Grade Five. At least, let’s get that policy ball rolling instead of banging the GCSE drum ever more defensively. Grade 9 is a great invention… if you’ve got half a chance of earning one.
Easy policy win: remove the pass/fail line from GCSE grades. At least make each grade have value for what it is: a bell-curve place marker.
Last of all – I think Headteachers need more protection. Even the worst possible outcome of an industrial tribunal is no real threat to a MAT or LA with the budgets they have. Heads can be ditched in a puff of wind. It’s wrong; it’s destabilising to the whole system. I think that Heads should have decent minimum contract terms and cases for dismissal would need an evidence base that is supported by independent evaluations. The current hire and fire power-games in some MATS and LA governing bodies are outrageous. With Heads as vulnerable as they are, the pressures on them are extreme and they knock-on to everyone in the system. So they leave.. that’s how it goes. If Heads were more secure, they could do a better job of absorbing normal level pressures and everyone would benefit. Again – a policy win right there.
I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned funding….
Not I said Ofsted. Not I said DFE. Not I said the ministers.. We’re the good guys.
Come on… take a GOOD HARD LOOK.
A better system is there for the taking. We need to dial down the whole gun-to-head intensity of the whole system and get accountability into some kind of perspective. Then decent Heads and great teachers might stick around a bit longer. The first task is to recognise the true source of the problems with the current one make policy accordingly.