What is it about mainstream media pundits, Ofsted and schools?

Fish Tree – attribution BonsMots on Flickr

Will Hutton’s piece in the Guardian this Sunday 12th February (Teachers, stop being so defensive. It’s time to embrace the no-excuses culture) seems to make all the same old mistakes.

He looks at the schooling system in this country mainly in terms of Oxbridge entry attainment:

Yet there is one statistic that haunts me. A report last year found that five schools – St Paul’s boys and girls, Westminster, Eton and Hills Road sixth form college in Cambridge (this last, unlike the others, in the state sector) – sent more students to Oxbridge over a period of three years than 2,000 other secondary schools combined. Around 35,000 children every year get the three As that could make them a candidate for our top universities; too few of them come from those 2,000 schools – the single biggest obstacle to promoting social mobility. Meanwhile, a third of this eligible pool of applicants come from private schools.

Why is he using one set of metrics from one set of colleges to make a pronouncement on the whole of the English Schools system? Those independent schools function with the expectation that a fair proportion of their intake will end up in Oxbridge colleges – that’s what the parents pay for and that is what they deliver. But guess what? There are many other higher education establishments out there as well? So why play the old game of inferring something from one small proportion of the attainment bell curve in one particular academic area? Is that the purpose of education? It is just perverse and really is set up to maintain the views coming down the line later in the article. It’s an old trick and it doesn’t quite work. Why, then, don’t we bring all the higher education establishments up to the level of the Oxbridge colleges? Or maybe we should look at the level of parental income and status in terms who who gets in to those establishments – why should one particular set of metrics hold more true than another? Depends where and how you look at the phenomenon? I think this ghost is more of an apparition than it first seems? Let’s try a thought experiment shall we and apply the same arguments Will Hutton puts forward but for the X factor telly programme instead…

But this is just a softening up of more to come:

These are such alarming figures that much more is at work than any inadequacy on the part of our teachers.

Then why mention it in the second half of the sentence? This is the English way – derision by association. It’s an age old code that doesn’t need Bletchley Park to decipher. We know what is coming – more teacher bashing and at half term at that, just as people are trying to relax.

We get the usual argument – I have heard it so many times now I am beginning to wonder why it is employed at all:

“…To concede everything to broader economic and social forces is a counsel of despair.

Then comes the usual, there are brilliant schools making the difference in tough areas, we need to start somewhere.

And of course the killer punch derived from all this insight:

So it was good to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw, the incoming head of Ofsted, announcing in his first major speech last week that he would not tolerate the educational mediocrity that so besets Britain. Too many schools had been labelled as “outstanding” by Ofsted when they were not; he wanted outstanding to mean just that.

Er – run that by me again? By what parameters? Where is the data around this word? How is the data shared? Who has suddenly reconfigured and upgraded the word and by what metrics, parameters or lexicon? Who aggregates this stuff or is it merely an exercise in revised nomenclature? Come on?

Then we get lots more on the resistance of the unions and collegiality of the staffroom and lastly, a paean to the introduction of performance management where :

Confronting poor performance is tough. It means establishing a framework so that teachers know what is expected, one that allows for tough conversations when those expectations are not met. It offers the chance of professional development but if that fails, teachers might lose not just pay but their jobs.

Notice that word “tough” used twice and it makes a nice bookend with Wilmsaw’s ‘”no-excuses” culture’ – both are confrontational phrases and this article is designed to be confrontational to get the sap rising in the teaching population at half term. Rather than suggest concrete, practical, formative measures we get the same old macho posturing around performance management as a stick to beat teachers. It is entirely unproductive and will just set up more high profile failure in the future.

It also means that those who do well get quicker opportunities for promotion and salary hikes. To deliver such a regime demands incredible fortitude and determination from heads, along with the inspiration to show that it matters. Inevitably, they will be charged with being unfair and of victimising weaker colleagues. It is hard to marry performance with the collegiality of a staff room.

Has he been in a staffroom recently?

Er – sorry – but I disagree with your analysis. I’d much rather have an expertise network of heads of good schools who act as mentors with leadership based around formative assessment based on local not national metrics – a network that allows for aggregation of good practice and accreditation based on Masters level but based on action research. Where there is a wider and more community based curriculum that questions why and what we learn for our productive collective futures and where people are encouraged and inspired by good reflective practice not wedge-end metrics or reconfigured words trying to shoe horn people into life paths that may not be fit for purpose.

Ofsted have been at it for 20 years and the best they can come up with is more verbal posturing based on decidedly shaky parameters. They don’t share their data in smart ways apart form making the odd pronouncements on certain curricular areas and the weirdly timed press releases to cover their own back in my opinion; they don’t use formative assessment, they don’t provide solutions – it’s as if Dylan Wiliam never existed and they just appear to up the ante without offering solutions other than more of the same. There’s too much teaching fish to climb tress out there and not enough allowing them to design their own ocean.

What we need is an national organisation that mentors and builds highly agile action research then aggregates good practice based on local performance set against local factors – personal bests rather than olympic times.

We’ve had 20 years of Ofsted and high stakes vocabulary changes and here we are, more of the same? This is another top down piece of spin designed to look good which will fall apart at the first opportunity.

Why? Because leadership is about taking people with you to new, exciting, inspirational places. Management is just that, merely managing the place you are in and managing performance even worse. You’ll never see proper formative assessment come in; you’ll never see an aggregation of good ideas and proper action research like they have in Finland; you’ll never see a localised model of assessment against realistic parameters and differing metrics based on different contexts for learning; you’ll never see vision and inspiration in this insipid environment.

No bottom up system has ever been allowed to flourish in this country for obvious reasons. All I’m seeing is more ill-informed agendas based on loosely cobbled together opinion that doesn’t move teacher development on one jot.

Yes it is leadership and teachers who make the difference but if you do not cherish teachers and help them thrive professionally you are going to make all the same mistakes since the introduction of the National Curriculum.

We need an interregnum; time to stand back and take stock of what it is we need to help teaching professionals up their game I doubt we’ll get it with articles like Will Hutton’s.

Posted on by leoncych in Adult Learning

7 Responses to What is it about mainstream media pundits, Ofsted and schools?

  1. DM

    It’s getting worse, and I can’t see an end in it at all. Ofsted and Gove are ganging up and bashing teachers in an academy-shaped hole.

  2. Stephen Cook

    Yes, yes & yes.

    Unfortunately those abusing, sorry, I mean in power still have not understood the one very fact that teaching is an incredibly complex process and within that process, much is immeasurable.

    They see education only in their terms i.e. what worked for them and assume it works for 100% of students in the country.

    They are frankly complete arses.

  3. Paul Shonk

    I agree whole heartedly with these comments. However, I would like to add that when these articles appear bashing those of us in teaching, what they all fail to mention is that there are a great number of students pushed into the FE sector where I work that should not be there. They are only there because of the constant erosion of manufacturing in this country, where many of them would have gone in the past. These count as “failures” in the official figures when they fail to gain qualifications, despite the fact that they should not be in Further education.

  4. David Richardson

    The irony is that Finland, that’s doing so well these days, redesigned their system (into the state it’s in now) specifically because their previous system (which looked very much like what’s been tried in England all these years) was failing.

    They decided to deal with the failure with a set of principles, including no privatised schools, local control with national standards for educational provision, support for teachers, etc, etc. They actually got a lot of these ideas from pre-Baker England …

    And yet, England is stuck with people like Gove, Wilshaw and Hutton who seem to think that the way to making the system work better is … to keep on repeating everything that’s failed (except at a higher volume).

  5. Nick Dennis

    I agree with the general points you are making and the reasons why behind it. I do feel however that the model you propose requires a degree of control to create that you would suggest is slightly draconian (but necessary). To put the structures in place, some tough talking needs to happen and teachers/consultants/leaders need to be realistic. I’m all for effective change and although FInland is cited as an example we have to remember we have a different set of cultural experiences/contexts from which to work within.

    • admin

      Nick, All I am asking for is time to reflect. I think building time into the curriculum for reflection on the part of teachers is not really draconian but essential. Also an interregnum would help slow things down on the part of anyone with a vested interest and I think the headlong rush into high stakes results could then be taken for what it is – one small part of the “education” system. Practical ways forward – where teachers and communities are more in charge of their own destinies seems a very pragmatic thing especially of you can reconnect the teaching and learning community with what they originally came into the profession for.

  6. editor

    As a retired teacher I retain a huge but objective affection for the profession. It grieves me to see such disharmony on how we can return to the days when our education system was the envy of the world. Every time we hear a debate on the ways to overcome the current financial difficulties we are given totally conflicting views from eminent economists which seems to suggest the solution is more art than science. It is the same in education.

    Good performance management should not be a stick to beat teachers with nor is it unproductive. I am impressed with the early statements and ideas released by Sir Michael Wilshaw. He is a teaching professional with outstanding results under his belt. His methods have been shown to work in a challenging environment.

    Some of the solutions are routed in the past and some simple principles have to be adopted. The fact is that just like every other walk of life, there are those unsuited to the profession, or whose standards are not good enough, those who are lazy as well as those who are incompetent. The answer to some of that is through nuturing through inspiring leadership to deliver improvement and some is through encouragement to go elsewhere for employment.

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