Standardised Standards

I visited City Hall the other day, the seat of London’s mayor. On entering the building I had to go through an ‘airport-style’ security procedure with an X-ray machine for my bag and a walk-through metal detector. Having done this, overseen by a couple of security guards, I walked into a lecture hall and waited around for a while until a cleaner came in and told me there was nothing on in this room; I then went into a lift that would only take me to three of the ten floors. After a while of this aimless wandering I was lucky enough to meet someone who could help me find the room I needed to be in. The official control systems were in place but there was no receptionist (like at the primary school where I work) so I was lost. This made me think of the English education system where centralised control and measurement have priority over actually helping teachers find their way i.e. develop their practise.

‘The New Few or A Very British Oligarchy’ (2012) by Ferdinand Mount, a former policy guru of Margaret Thatcher, describes the increasing centralisation of power in the UK in a chapter entitled ‘Closing the Local’.  In doing so the author draws on Professor Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lecture (A Question of Trust). Here are some quotes from ‘Closing the Local’:

“…hitherto, the judgement and experience of professionals had been the guiding force in their field. Now the professionals were to be second-guessed at every turn by a small number of central bureaucrats. Was this really the path to excellence?…Their overriding aim was to eliminate unevenness of provision so that standards would be uniform everywhere…But if you eliminate unevenness, you eliminate diversity, often the most precious quality in any field of endeavour since without it there is no room for innovation. It is best practise from a diversity of practitioners that is the motor of improvement.”

Here are some quotes from O’Neill’s 2002 lecture:

“For those of us in the public sector the new accountability takes the form of detailed control…Central planning may have failed in the former Soviet Union but it is alive and well in Britain today…The idea of audit has been exported from its original financial context to cover ever more detailed scrutiny of non-financial processes and systems….This ‘audit explosion’, as Michael Power has so aptly called it…Managerial accountability for achieving targets is also imposed on institutions although they are given little institutional freedom….I think that many public sector professionals find that the new demands damage their real work….Even children are not exempt from the new accountability: exams are more frequent and time for learning shrinks….But underlying this ostensible aim of accountability to the public the real requirements are for accountability to regulators, to departments of government, to funders, to legal standards. The new forms of accountability impose forms of central control-quite often indeed a range of different and mutually inconsistent forms of central control…the new culture of accountability and audit makes professionals and institutions more accountable for good performance. This is manifest in the rhetoric of improvement and rising standards, of efficiency gains and best practice, of respect for patients and pupils and employees. But beneath this admirable rhetoric the real focus is on performance indicators chosen for ease of measurement and control rather than because they measure accurately what the quality of performance is…If we want a culture of public service, professionals and public servants must in the end be free to serve the public rather than their paymasters.”

Of course this is much the same as previous posts quoting Stephen J. Ball on ‘performativity‘. The particular point of this post is that heavily formalised systems of control and standardisation do not help educational systems flourish. Quite the opposite is true! Diversity is a strength. Standardised standards weaken.

A Letter to my son’s headteacher

My son’s school recently had to undergo an Ofsted inspection. The school ended up being given a ‘3’ which translates as ‘in need of improvement’ (aren’t we all). Here is the letter I sent to the headteacher. It was photocopied for all teachers in the school and a copy now takes pride of place on the wall of my son’s classroom. I hope that it might inspire other parents to write similar letters of support in the same circumstances.

            I am writing to express my sadness that the school has been given a ‘3’ by Ofsted. I am not sad for my son because I know that his class teacher does an excellent job and nor am I sorry for the wider school community because I know that the school has a reputation for looking out for all children especially those SEN children who need a little bit of extra care and attention. Indeed the school’s evident insistence on putting the real needs of the children in front of their ‘achievement’ was reinforced by your own comments that you prioritise the children’s ‘contentment’. This, in my opinion, is an admirable stance to take as a headteacher. Ofsted’s grave observation that ‘pupils do not all make good progress from Nursery to Year 2’ becomes ridiculous when one compares these children with those in other countries on the continent who would simply be playing at this age.

            I note in the ‘key findings’ of Ofsted’s school report that ‘pupils do not learn quickly’ and that governors do not work hard enough to ensure the school ‘improves swiftly’. These phrases remind me of Ofsted’s oft repeated insistence on a ‘brisk pace’ in lessons as if we are all in a mad rush at all times; after all, aren’t we continually reminded that it is a ‘global race’? It saddens me to see a school kicked around like this by Ofsted. It is a recurring pattern across the country, as I’m sure you know, to denigrate perfectly decent schools. There are political reasons for this and this letter is not the place to examine those.

            I only wish to let you know that this parent, at least, finds Ofsted wanting and not your school.

                                                                        Yours sincerely,

P.S. I hope you will find time to watch ‘FASCINATING AIDA: very funny OFSTED song’ on Youtube and, perhaps, to share it with all staff; I should think everyone needs a morale booster right now.

blog readers here’s a link

P.P.S. works hard everyday to analyse the current education game in this country and to reveal many of its shortcomings; I highly recommend it


Another disgruntled teacher!

Here is a letter published in the Metro free newspaper on 15th October. It is from a ‘Disgruntled Teacher’ (not me!) Well done Metro for printing it and well done Disgruntled Teacher for sending it. I know just how you feel.

Readers have been blaming teachers for the below-average level of young people’s literacy and numeracy. I would like to point out that teachers are under constant scrutiny and pressure to drive pupil attainment higher. As a primary school teacher, I must ensure my seven and eight-year-olds reach specific attainment levels by the end of the year and I am subject to termly moderations to make sure they are all on track. I am wholly accountable for their progress.

            My problem is that this increased pressure on children to perform and make progress means opportunities for exploration and enjoyment of learning are pushed aside as there is ‘no time’. We are creating classrooms of robots who lack self expression and interest. As teachers, we are under such strict time constraints on what must be covered that it is having an adverse affect on education. So they may be able to write a perfectly formed letter at seven but at what cost?

                                                                        Disgruntled Teacher via email

“Never is anyone more unjust than the ignorant.” Adelphoe

            I was invited to observe a colleague’s lesson as part of some middle-management training. The idea is that if a school’s management know what the correct judgement for a lesson is (outstanding = 1, good = 2 etc) then that school knows its staff and will be able to explain itself to any visiting inspector. The process was straightforward enough but also insidious. The denial of subtlety and the insistence that learning can, and indeed must, be seen to be happening in front of any observer’s eyes is absurd, unintelligent and unjust.

            The Year 6 (ten and eleven year olds) maths lesson was an expansive one covering patterns, factors and shapes; not only covering these topics but ambitiously making connections between them. It started with twelve children in a circle passing a ball from one to the other. This was then mapped out on a blank clock face using a ruler to draw straight lines between each number on the face. The resulting shape is a dodecagon with twelve straight sides of equal length. A variation of the game – with the ball missing one person each time around the circle – mapped in the same way produces a hexagon. It was left to the students to take it forward from this appealingly active start to the lesson. Incidentally this sort of lesson is very much ‘post-SATs’ as no teacher would teach in such an abstract way prior to the teach-to-the-test SATs. Throughout this introductory part of the lesson the teacher made a big effort to encourage dialogue and reflection on what was taking place in the lesson.

            Working independently some children, naturally, fared better than others. Once the ball, as it were, is passed to every fifth person the line needs to break through the ‘12’ position on the clock and produces a star (the line going from 12 – 5 – 10 – 3 – 8 – 1 – 6 – 11 – 4 and so on). The ‘jumps-of-five’ pattern was something that a few children did not immediately grasp. The teacher had already foreseen this and asked those who were unsure to come to the front for further instruction and explanation before getting on with it independently. Unfortunately some who should have did not do this and some who did seemed none the wiser.

            I considered it to have been a good lesson; the great majority of the children fully engaged for the great majority of the lesson; a clear and articulate teacher leading the whole process with lots of chances for all to join in and share thoughts and ideas; an imaginative attempt to draw attention to the beauty that can result from playing around with numbers. The local authority adviser who watched the lesson with me assured me that it was in fact ‘in need of improvement’ (read: not bloody good enough). This is Ofsted’s new expression for what had been described in the past as satisfactory or adequate. The reason for this judgement was that some of the children had been muddled at the point where they had to draw a pattern for the ‘jumps-of-five’. I agreed that the teacher might have made more of the complications that arise at this point but I do not accept that, because these children were stuck, they were not progressing. Ofsted have introduced a culture where an inspector must see ‘progress’ and ‘learning’ right there during their – sometimes fleeting, as little as twenty minutes – visit to the lesson.

            At first glance this seems simple enough and obvious enough: the inspector’s job is to answer two questions: how do you go about teaching? And, more importantly, is your approach effective or not? The first question can be answered with close observation of the lesson itself; the second question is much harder to pin down and is often not answered even by close observation of the lesson. Ofsted would vigorously deny this last underlined point. Here are a few ways you can examine a teacher’s effect on the learner’s in the classroom:

  1. Ask the children, after the lesson, all about it to see how much they have really held onto
  2. Look at the children’s books to gauge the growth in understanding over time
  3. If it is a formally examined subject look at exam grades over time

            Efficacy is not by any means something that can be located and clearly identified in a single visit to a classroom. The most a sensible observer can do is to note the various strategies that are used by a teacher to encourage thought, engagement, enjoyment, problem-solving, dialogue, articulacy and so on. Ofsted have, over the years, introduced a culture of what I call ‘context-less judgemental immediacy’: an ugly expression for a profoundly damaging tendency. Ofsted, as anyone who works in a school will tell you, are in a terrible hurry. Inevitably they favour immediacy of judgement and it’s not surprising that they pay little attention to context. So, in the case of our Year 6 maths lesson with some children stumped by the task, any inspector would be unlikely to consider the following:

            “…learning from success tends to aim and focus how we think, while learning from failure also leads to … productive thoughts, but in less directed ways.”

            “Human thought is not based on any single and uniform kind of ‘logic’, but upon myriad processes, scripts, stereotypes, critics and censors, analogies and metaphors.” 

            “We can make fewer errors by confining ourselves to cautious, ‘logical’ reasoning, but we’ll also discover fewer new ideas.” 1

            These sorts of thoughts are much too subtle, and indeed thought-provoking, for the inspection process; quite simply we need a simplified image of teaching and learning that can be quickly and universally applied. This is, of course, the famous ‘tick-box’ culture that you will hear teachers, and many others, complain of. For schools then it is a question of imagining learning as no more than filling a person’s head with knowledge; something that John Dewey faulted schools on a hundred years ago. I repeat: teaching is not telling.

            The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Singapore and Finland at the very top for educational provision. In the Institute for Learning’s current magazine Geoff Petty (author of ‘Teaching Today’ and ‘Evidence-based Teaching’) lists a number of key ingredients for this success:

            “They don’t use accountability and control systems, they get teachers to work together to frame good practice. They provide excellent CPD (continuing professional development), enable teachers to make innovations in pedagogy and foster professional dialogue. They have moved away from standardisation and compliance towards helping teachers to learn how to get better. They also put the most capable teachers into the most challenging classrooms.”

            This last point is funny for me because it reminds me of when I started teaching and I was given the class that was clearly, and openly acknowledged as, the most disruptive group of children in the school!

            It’s not just Geoff Petty fighting the fight for including some actual pedagogical values in educational policy. In the same magazine Dr Matt O’Leary writes about an ‘expansive’ – as opposed to restrictive – approach to lesson observation. This is an approach that is defined by:

  1. differentiated observation: this allows the teacher to select what the focus of the observation will be resulting in greater ‘ownership’ of the process
  2. prioritizing feedback: this means giving feedback its proper place at the centre of the process i.e. allocating time for feedback equal to the amount of time of the observation
  3. removing the graded element: no use of Ofsted’s 1s, 2s, 3s & 4s

This last point is my favourite and Dr O’Leary’s research identified what happens when the graded element is removed “levels of trust between colleagues improved and some of the negative associations surrounding observation vanished…” In another paper Dr O’Leary tells it how it is:

            “By attaching a grade to the subjective judgement of the observer, people are seduced into believing that such judgements have greater objectivity and authority than they can, in reality, claim to have” 2

The seduced include Ofsted inspectors themselves: never is anyone more unjust than the ignorant; to be ignorant is to be impressionable, seduce-able. I knew one teacher who trained to be an Ofsted inspector. He had too much integrity to follow it through and chose not to become an actual inspector. As it happens Ofsted are about to visit my current school; I should really print the above quote out in large font and make a poster of it. It neatly sums up one of the main forces of momentum behind this disgruntled website.

            1. The Society of Mind (1987) by Marvin Minsky pages 96, 184 & 279

            2. The Role of Lesson Observation in Shaping Professional Identity, Learning and Development in Further Education Colleges in the West Midlands (Doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2011)


Ofsted Imperfect

Some thoughts on the Ofsted inspection process

There needs to be an acute awareness of the fact that what an observer sees and subsequently says is subjective. This is why non-judgemental feedback is crucial. The ‘Ofsted-style’ grading is divisive and unhelpful. It’s wrong for Ofsted to do it every few years and it’s even more wrong for staff within a school to do it to each other every term.


It is divisive because it sets up an insidious hierarchy of 4s, 3s, 2s and 1s; beguiling but harmful. Are observers really so inarticulate that they need a number-system to express themselves? A lesson observation is a chance for the – presumably more experienced and skilful – observer to pass on hints, tips and helpful suggestions. Anyone can read between the lines to see what the observer made of the lesson as a whole. Without an Ofsted grade the feedback loses much of its power to inflate or crush ego, neither of which is a desirable outcome. The feedback then becomes solely about the quality of the observations made. The observer is no longer a judge but more properly a guide and mentor. In a school we should be acting on the principle of common understanding with an approach that fosters self-respect and builds a collegiate atmosphere of professionals; the headteacher the first among equals.


From a top-down perspective the requirement of judgements and re-judgements make sense and is helpful as it produces reassuring spreadsheets of data and hard evidence of ‘Teacher X’ moving from a 4 to a 3, a 1 to a 2 and so on. From the ground up however it looks and feels quite different. It is, for a number of teachers, demoralising, depressing, frustrating and very stressful. The judgement is made and without any dialogue there is no way to state your case; to draw attention to the shortcomings of the observations themselves, that is to shine a light on the limited perspective of the observer*. Feedback must be a dialogue. For example “You approached that in a way that I never would have. Why was that?” is much better than “What you did there was too advanced/too easy/insert judgement here”. The observer should not be jury and judge. It might make good TV like The Apprentice but it’s no way to build morale and build a team.

Staff morale, and this is the case for a significant number of teachers, plummets. Some classes in a school may be much more demanding than others. This needs to be constantly acknowledged. It is too easy to criticise and we all thrive on praise. We would not treat pupils in this way for precisely the same reason that we should not treat adults like this (sad to say that we do, in fact, treat pupils like this because of the high-stakes testing we have in England). However it remains true that teaching is stressful enough without these added pressures.

But what about those teachers judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’? Firstly I’m not convinced that the best teachers ever think of themselves as ‘outstanding’. You are a teacher, always learning. More importantly where does a teacher go who is labelled ‘outstanding’? This label may well be applied within the first year or two of a teacher’s career! Can you be ‘outstanding’ after 2 or 3 years teaching? I think you can but only if ‘outstanding’ is defined as the possession of a limited set of skills combined with the ability to comply with your individual school’s lesson protocol.  The minority of inadequate teachers can be dealt with, while the few outstanding teachers – and it is a few if this term is going to have any real meaning – can be led towards Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) status or similar. This leaves the vast majority of teachers on a level playing field – your goods and adequates – working on their skills/knowledge/expertise in a mutually supportive environment.

* I have known numerous observations, of my own lessons and others, where a teacher has been told that one or two pupils were at one point misbehaving in some way behind the teacher’s back. This is always put forward as both a helpful insight and evidence of the observer’s keen awareness of everything going on in that classroom. It is neither. Looked at from the teacher’s point of view there is a huge amount that the observer does not see (e.g. the individual characters of pupils or the recent progress a class may have made)

Bogus judgements: a case study

The following quotes in bold are from a recent lesson observation; these quotes are followed by my thoughts on each one. The intention is to show how a system of quick judgements can be both inaccurate and destructive. ‘Performance-related pay’ is being pushed through at the moment as the obvious solution to poor teaching. The following few points illustrate how easy it is to make inaccurate judgements. There is also a sense that the final grade is more important than the development of the teacher’s practice. This has disturbing implications for a new era of ‘performance related pay’.

  • ‘The lesson was pitched too low for the class’ – During verbal feedback a critical point was made regarding a single pupil who was considered not to have been adequately challenged. The lesson was about how to spell words by thinking about the sounds, a typical lesson in Year 1. The child in question was able to write sentences and had not been made to do so. His sentence-writing at this time was limited to words being squashed together with many capital letters in the wrong places. As this was the sixth 45 minute Literacy lesson of the year (and of his life) formal sentence-writing skills had not yet been addressed. It would be unhelpful to both pupil and teacher to see his same mistakes being repeated. The group-work session was, as always, differentiated into three separate exercises for three ability-groups within the class. Bearing this in mind, and considering the case of this single pupil, it is impossible to explain how the entire lesson can be regarded as having been ‘pitched too low’.
  • ‘…however you did stop during the lesson and checked pupils understanding before redirecting them.’ (sic) – Poor grammar and punctuation aside it is still unclear how this helped to mitigate the lesson being ‘pitched too low for the class.’
  • ‘Lesson not resourced and ready to go’ – The Teaching Assistant (TA) had received the resources for this lesson from the TA of the other Year 1 class next door. This was because the same lesson had just been taught next door (NB all staff have been encouraged not to waste resources in the school by unnecessary duplication). This handover was at the start of the lesson as the observers entered the classroom. Those observing knew why the lesson was not already resourced as they walked through the door. That this detail has been noted as a failing is the clearest indication of all that this observation was not carried out in a helpful and supportive way.
  • ‘Least able children were supported by the TA in the group-work session. Ensure that these children rotate daily so that they are getting teacher input and independent time’ – Quite simply: they do rotate daily. A quick glance at the planning shows this.
  • ‘The teaching was found to be satisfactory as the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils’  – This is a very revealing statement indeed. Here we can see that the word ‘satisfactory’ has actually been reinterpreted to mean ‘less than satisfactory’. For this sentence to actually make sense the word ‘as’ should be replaced with ‘but’ (i.e. the teaching was found to be satisfactory but the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils). Ofsted began the process of degrading the word ‘satisfactory’ and now this is carried on by management teams within schools who have internalised those values. Ofsted has now abandoned its attempt to bring a new meaning to the word ‘satisfactory’ and has replaced it with ‘in need of improvement’.
  • Not a single descriptor within the ‘Good’ category is highlighted: this tells me there was nothing good about the lesson! Quite apart from the fact that this is demoralising as a judgement it is also inaccurate when the category-descriptors are examined. Without any sense of poor judgement or exaggeration the following descriptors could easily have been highlighted: ‘There is no evidence of disruptive behaviour’ (Outstanding) or ‘Pupils are motivated and engaged’ (Good) However these descriptors were not highlighted.In fact all highlighted descriptors fell within one category: ‘Satisfactory’. This in itself is suspicious. It is as if the need for a clear ‘grade’ was more important in this exercise than helping teachers to improve their practice. Many equivalent ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ descriptors are practically the same anyway (i.e. little more than arbitrary judgements).

Internal observations should be conducted in a professional and supportive way. They are not meant to be an Ofsted inspection but a check that standards are being upheld. More importantly it is a time for the more experienced teacher to help the observed teacher. A punitive and unreasonable observation results in an unmotivated teacher. It puts an individual on the back foot trying not to do the wrong thing rather than pushing to do what is best for the class.

A demoralised colleague

I sent the following message to a fellow teacher who has been treated with contempt by those employed to support and guide her. She had taught a literacy lesson to a class of five and six year olds. Some of the children had used ‘ellipsis’ (as a set of dots) in their writing because they had learned about these three little dots earlier in the week. The children knew about them and were intrigued by them and by their special name: ellipsis. The management/observers regarded this as reason enough to dismiss the entire lesson as ‘inadequate’. Curiously they felt the need to ‘reassure’ this particular teacher that she was an outstanding teacher but – due to the grave matter of five year olds messing around with dots – the lesson in question had to be judged as ‘inadequate’.

A message of support:

I was dismayed to hear of your recent observation. I really do feel for you. It is an extraordinary process. I am stunned that a school can internalise the punitive OFSTED approach to staff ‘development’ to the extent that utterly demoralising someone is considered ‘what’s best for the children’. The horrible passive-aggressive nature of such encounters with our managers is very unpleasant. Just remember that there are two kinds of authority: hierarchical and natural. The former, in its worst form, is characterised by bogus ‘cleverer than thou’ language and by petty attacks on those who are further down the chain. Both of these characteristics are symptoms of insecurity. Natural authority is not about ‘x’ telling ‘y’ what to do and how to do it but rather by ‘y’ learning from ‘x’ because ‘x’ has more experience and knowledge and hence expertise than ‘y’. With natural authority one can only learn and grow in a supportive atmosphere.