Putting pressure on schools
I’ve written about the fundamentally flawed assumptions which policy makers, politicians and think tanks make about education. The first and most important of these is the assumption that schools - and by extension teachers – have sole responsibility for the academic achievement of children in their charge. The second is the assumption that Ofsted teaching grades are a reflection of the teaching in a given school.
Those who work in schools will know that this assumption is flawed. David Didau sums up the feeling of most of those working in schools when he says that ’the commonly held view amongst most teachers and school leaders is that a lead inspector makes a preliminary judgement based on a school’s RAISE online data and then turns up in classrooms looking for confirmation of a decision that has already been made.’ Unfortunately, those who don’t teach and have never taught often assume that Ofsted reports, based on visiting a school for a few hours every few years, reflect what actually happens in schools. Those in school know they don’t.
Assumptions cause real problems when researchers use Ofsted reports to build a case. One pressure group which did this recently was The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA commissioned a report in 2011 - which used data and insight supplied by Ofsted - called '(Un)Satisfactory? Enhancing Life Chances by Improving ‘Satisfactory’ Schools'.
The author claims that the report shows how:
- The likelihood of attending a ‘satisfactory’ school is affected by where you live.
- More affluent pupils tend to attend better schools. For disadvantaged pupils, the reverse is true.
- Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are over-represented in ‘Satisfactory’ (and ‘Inadequate’) schools
- The stronger likelihood of attending a poorer quality school applies to working class pupils (‘disadvantaged’) as much as highly disadvantaged pupils
The report went on to say that:
In terms of school improvement, the findings show that:
- Schools are more likely to be graded 'satisfactory' or 'inadequate' if they have previously been judged 'satisfactory' - hence suggesting a lower capacity to improve among these 'longer term' satisfactory schools.
- Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged pupils are more likely to decline from 'Outstanding' and 'Good' grades, than are schools with advantaged pupil populations.
- 'Satisfactory' schools with disadvantaged pupil populations are significantly less likely to improve at the next inspection than are those with advantaged populations.
Since the report was based on flawed assumptions and dubious analysis of dubious data supplied by Ofsted, these findings were largely guaranteed by the inspection framework of the time. Having read many Ofsted reports, and having been advised by Ofsted, the report’s author concluded that the ‘lack of improvement’ was due to the ‘inconsistent’ quality of teaching, which was naturally largely rated ‘satisfactory’, as per the data.
The author then made various recommendations. The most influential recommendations were that the ‘satisfactory’ grade be renamed, to ‘Performing Inconsistently’, and that any school which was rated as ‘Performing Inconsistently’ be treated as an ‘Inadequate’ school. This is the report which Michael Wilshaw used to justify his decision to change the fairly neutral ‘satisfactory’ grade to the fairly damning ‘requires improvement’, and to – in effect – threaten Heads with the sack if their schools remained at the ‘Requires Improvement’ grade.
Now, given that grades reflect achievement which reflect socio-economic status of the intake, the only way to prevent a school in a disadvantaged area losing its head teacher is to improve its intake, play the Ofsted data game or hope for a miracle.
Incidentally, the report’s author Becky Francis’s heart is clearly in the right place. She was a co-author of another report for the RSA, ‘The social class gap for educational achievement: a review of the literature’, in which she notes that ‘social class remains the strongest predictor of educational attainment in the UK.’ But with no teaching experience, and having made two flawed assumptions – that schools are solely responsible for pupils’ attainment and that Ofsted’s Quality of Teaching reflects quality of teaching – and having temporarily forgotten the real reason schools are rated the way they are, her report has had huge repercussions and made a bad situation much, much worse.
Enter OFSTED, stage left, on a charger
Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, is a forceful character. Much has been written about him elsewhere. Let’s just say that he is fairly convinced his experience in some highly unusual secondary schools in London is transferable to all schools. He is also convinced that he can single-handedly close the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in England.
Using the RSA report, and bullet-proof self-confidence, he aimed to tackle the ‘problem’ of schools being consistently judged not to be good or outstanding. He took charge of Ofsted in January 2012 and immediately launched a consultation which he called ‘A Good Education for All’. Clearly influenced by the RSA report, this report largely ignored the responses to the consultation, and led to changes to the School Inspection Handbook in October 2012. In the revised Handbook, the Pupil Premium made its first appearance, and schools were threatened with ‘requiring improvement’ if their data did not outperform the national average.
The Toolkit is effectively a guide for schools to show them how to spend pupil premium money in a way which will find favour with OFSTED. This explains why it has cutesy little £ signs and ‘months progress’ summaries next to more than forty different categories of pupil support. Much of this research is questionable, naturally, but that’s for another time. In short, it’s a Pupil Premium toolkit.
Ofsted have continue to drive the Pupil Premium myth and in the revised handbook in April 2014, it had expanded to 27 separate mentions, and is now deeply embedded into the OFSTED regime. The Pupil Premium now underpins large swathes of Ofsted’s inspection framework. There is so much of it, I've put it in an appendix here.
The long and the short of the changes made this year is that a school which cannot show that children in their care who attract Pupil Premium funding make better progress those who do not attract additional funding will be regarded as a school which requires improvement or needs special measures to make it good or outstanding.
Take a moment to think about this. It doesn’t take long to see how circular the argument is.
This despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever of any intervention or program which is guaranteed to help the disadvantaged succeed when compared to those who are not disadvantaged. And this is the crux of the matter. No matter how hard you drive your disadvantaged children, they have to make more progress than advantaged children to keep OFSTED happy.
Depressingly, those in education have accepted Pupil Premium almost without question. A good example of the supine approach to this untested initiative is SecEd’s ‘Demonstrating Pupil Premium impact’ pamphlet issued in September 2012. It simply takes what Ofsted has said it will be looking for and accepts that this must be done. Even though the pamphlet notes that ‘there are no quick fixes for social mobility and schools can only be part of the solution. If there had been, then the problem would have been solved decades ago,’ schools are expected to find quick fixes. 'Ofsted would,' continues the pamphlet, 'expect schools that have identified a problem with pupil progress to address the issue quickly and have a positive impact on this within a six to eight week period.' (The emphasis is mine). Just like that, as Tommy Cooper might say.
But unless your school has a very small number of disadvantaged children – a selective school in a wealthy market town for example – or disadvantaged children being supported by their ambitious parents – pretty much any school in wrong-side-of-the-tracks London comes into this category – you are always going to lose the Ofsted Pupil Premium game. The Pupil Premium will poleaxe you, almost as if it was designed to do exactly that.
In my next blog, I'll look at the way schools have weathered the storm this orthodoxy has unleashed, and look at what we can do about it.
Thnaks to @ChemistryPoet for proof reading and insight.