Education minister fails the test

Damian Hinds has never been known for logical coherence, but his latest Telegraph article fails the test completely. Jumping to the defence of the SATs, he shows a fragile hold on reality and a threadbare logic.

Firstly we are told that children’s learning is assessed through national standardised tests ‘all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia’. This is not exactly a lie, just ‘economical with the truth’. Finland, as is well known, does not use national tests till age 18. France has recently introduced some national tests, but very light touch (20 minutes in length). ‘In most US States,  they happen annually.’ True, but anyone who thinks they raise achievement should look at the international PISA assessment where the USA, like England, bounces along the bottom.

Hinds goes on to argue that ‘these assessments do not exist to check up on our children’ but ‘to keep account of the system, and those responsible for delivering it’. If SATs are there to check the system is working, PISA does that already – and shows that it is working poorly. The second argument is different: to check on the ‘deliverers’, the teachers. Is this supposed to reassure the parents of overstressed children?

England is a laboratory for control and surveillance. Here standardised tests link to league tables, link to Ofsted, link to performance pay, link to academisation, link to market competition… to create a total system of stress and suspicion.

It is no use Hinds arguing that ‘all over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured.’ He presides over a nightmare system which leads headteachers to pass the pressure down the line to teachers who pass it on to pupils – a system held together by fear and stress. It is disingenuous to pretend it’s just an attitude problem.

Hinds continues: ‘Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental exams or stop opticians measuring our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified’. Indeed, but surely dental exams and eye tests are for the individual’s good, not to question the professionalism of dentists and opticians.

There are  two obvious conclusions from Hinds’ dishonest article:

i) If the education secretary wants to know how well the system works, use sample tests as England used to do. (But he does know, from PISA… the English school system performs badly!)

ii) if he doesn’t trust teachers’ judgment, give them better professional development, and find some light-touch means of verifying and moderating it.

Teachers could use a wider range of evidence than the SATs, without any of the stress, without cramming children or narrowing the curriculum.

  • It would be very easy to provide some samples to illustrate a satisfactory or good standard of reading comprehension or maths problem solving.
  • A bank of sample assessment tasks could be made available so that a teacher could check his or her own judgement.
  • Year 6 teachers from different schools could meet up to discuss a sample of pupils’ work. After all, university degrees are moderated by a teacher from another university.

Time to trust the teachers, Mr Hinds.

Posted in Uncategorized

Ofsted: notoriously unreliable

Ofsted judgments have never been trustworthy. There have been problems from the start. It should come as no surprise that none of the 46 schools wearing an Outstanding label which were inspected this January retained that label: 37 became Good, 8 Requires Improvement and 1 Inadequate.

Many had flown the Outstanding banner for years without review and were only re-inspected because of pressure from outside. The National Audit Office in 2018 discovered that 1620 schools had not been inspected for six or more years, and 296 of them had flown the Outstanding banner for over 10 years without reinspection. The most recent Chief Inspector’s report admits that 17% of schools badged Outstanding had not had a full inspection in the last 10 academic years.


This is not, of course, an attack on teachers who are genuinely excellent, but there are also many outstanding teachers in wonderful schools in more challenging areas – schools which Ofsted stigmatises. Ofsted inspections and labels simply provide misleading information to teachers and parents.

Ofsted carefully maintain the illusion of infallibility. There have been hundreds of complaints from schools (5% of all inspections) but Ofsted has not changed a single grade in three years. A survey by the National Audit Office showed that most dissatisfied heads didn’t bother to complain because they didn’t trust the process.

In truth however, Ofsted headquarters have never trusted its inspectors’ competence to base judgments on what they actually see in the school. From the start of Ofsted, their judgments have been checked against test data; in case of doubt, the data rules.

Ofsted was initially set up as a privatised organisation on a contracting out basis. Responsibility for individual inspections was contracted to hundreds of different companies, who in turn sub-contracted to thousands of individual inspectors for a duration of 2-5 days. Because there was no sick pay, holiday pay, pensions or employment rights, the quality of inspectors was extremely variable. The contracting process was eventually concentrated into three main regional contractors CfBT, Serco and Tribal, who employed individual inspectors directly as Additional Inspectors. In 2012 Ofsted was forced to admit it had carried out no checks on their suitability.

Finally in 2015 Ofsted brought everything in-house. 2800 of the 3000 Additional Inspectors applied to work directly for Ofsted but 1200 were rejected as inadequate. Ofsted however has made no attempt to review these inadequate inspectors’ judgments. Indeed, its spokesperson declared: “We stand by the inspections that we have done in the last few years.”

There is no reason to think Ofsted inspectors are any more reliable now. Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Social Justice | Tagged , ,

How teaching can be different

by Valerie Coultas

Cultures of performativity must go if collaboration and creativity is to survive in teaching

This article takes issue with the dominant managerial view that teaching is improved by close supervision and imposed lesson observations. Instead, I argue for collaborative teaching approaches to re-establish the principle that teachers and lecturers are able and willing to reflect on their practice without contemporary punitive approaches.

I will argue that collaborative planning, team teaching and reciprocal approaches to evaluation have a far more profound and empowering effect on teachers and are far more likely to spread good practice than the present dominant top-down approaches.

The crisis in teacher recruitment and retention demands that schools, colleges, universities and politicians make some radical changes that allow for teacher creativity and agency to re-emerge.

The wider policy context – the rise of a quasi-market Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Teachers | Tagged , , ,

Urgent action on Ofsted

Ofsted are desperately trying to rebrand themselves, including the claim that they will rely less on test data and more on intelligent engagement with the school’s curriculum. There are good reasons to be sceptical about this, given the hit-and-run nature of inspections: just 2 days in a school to make a final and public high-stakes judgement.

The Chief Inspector has launched a ‘consultation’ on Ofsted’s problematic view of the curriculum, but ruled out any rethinking about the four grades: Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, Inadequate.

This is the most offensive part of the Ofsted system: the power of three or four strangers to make a judgement which can demoralise good teachers and even destroy a school. This is no exaggeration: there is recent evidence of comprehensive schools condemned as Inadequate on the basis of observations of just 20 part lessons.

The situation isn’t even helpful for schools which get a Good grading. When they are revisited three years later, a single inspector arrives for just one day, pops into three or four lessons and decides whether the school is ‘still Good’.

In a recent post, we showed the extremity of social bias. Schools in more affluent areas almost invariably get the top grades, whilst the majority of schools serving the poorest communities are publicly condemned as failures.

If there is a role for any kind of external inspection, it is to identify what might help a school to improve its students’ education – not to give the school a marketing banner or a death sentence.

The one change which would most reduce the damage Ofsted causes, and the fear it loads onto teachers, would be to stop the grading. 

Professor Frank Coffield, a member of the Reclaiming Schools research network, has just launched a petition which we urge everybody to sign. Please circulate this to all your colleagues.

Posted in Accountability, Uncategorized | Tagged ,

Ofsted – a fairer future?

clipboard b30873edbf15c53bd8bc8b1611923be15513-460x306

Rumours are circulating that schools in poor areas will stand a better chance of getting a good Ofsted grade, but where is this coming from? There are no such promises in the new draft Inspection Framework. In fact, page 11 shows that test results remain an important consideration, as part of the judgement about Quality of Education.

Ofsted’s hit and run approach to inspection – sending total strangers into a school to make a judgement in just two days – means they will continue to rely heavily on test and exam data accessed before they start. The inspectors simply don’t have time to do otherwise. Just a third as many person-days are allocated to inspections as in the 1990s, Ofsted’s first decade.

We need to question whether inspectors are capable, within such a short time, of tuning in to the positive work of teachers and their relationship with children and their families. When four inspectors have only two days to inspect a large secondary school, they can only skim the surface. The hit-and-run approach includes observing only fragments of lessons and skimming through a few exercise books. With the best will in the world, Ofsted will continue to pre-judge schools on the basis of the data.

A fairer system in the future?

The story of a fairer approach to inspection seems to originate with a BBC website journalist, rather than any senior Ofsted official. On 16 January, reporter Judith Burns wrote:

A school in a tough area which has great teachers and a great curriculum could be rated outstanding from September, even if pupils’ results are mediocre, says Ofsted.  

This exact sentence was copied by dozens of other media outlets, but the BBC reporter gave no source. Later she quotes Ofsted’s director for education Sean Harford on schools that game or cram and achieve good results by narrowing the curriculum, but includes nothing to support her opening sentence.

Even if the quotation did come from an authoritative source, the word ‘mediocre’  betrays a terrible contempt for these schools. The pupils and teachers will have worked their socks off to achieve the best possible results – results which are a fantastic achievement, even if they’re not as good as the A*s in more privileged schools.

Ofsted are desperate to rebrand themselves, and maybe Judith Burns is quoting one of their spin-doctors. Instead of rumours of change, we should look to Ofsted’s record.


The record so far

Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Social Justice | Tagged ,

Progress 8 – a biased and misleading measure

Progress 8 was supposed to be a fair measure of secondary school ‘effectiveness’. New research confirms that it is seriously biased against schools with more disadvantaged pupils.

It is vital to expose this injustice because scoring ‘well below average’ on Progress 8 triggers consequences such as an early Ofsted, forced academisation or transfer to a more ruthless MAT. Poor Progress 8 scores can also lead to families avoiding schools they assume to be of poor quality.

This new report by George Leckie and Harvey Goldstein (University of Bristol) shows that these problems potentially damage schools, particularly those serving poorer neighbourhoods. The researchers look at the impact of the government’s decision not to consider a range of social factors, including disadvantage (measured by free school meal eligibility, but also living in an areas of multiple deprivation).

In particular, Progress 8 fails to recognise that pupils growing up in poverty tend to make less progress – on average, almost half a grade lower in each GCSE subject. For schools with many disadvantaged pupils, this will push down their Progress 8 scores and will often push them below the government -0.5 floor standard (the boundary for being deemed ‘well below average’).

In order to demonstrate the extent of injustice in Progress 8, the Bristol researchers produce an Alternative Progress 8 calculation. This considers poverty, gender, SEN, and ethnicity. This alternative calculation would result in a third of schools changing bands (eg from ‘below average’ to ‘average’). The number of schools targeted for intervention as ‘below the floor standard’ (i.e. ‘well below average’) would fall by a third, from 303 schools to 196. Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Grammar schools and “ordinary working families” again

In our last blog post, we looked into a new and deeply flawed ‘research report’ by former Department of Education official Iain Mansfield. It was written in support of the Prime Minister’s argument that expanding grammar schools across England would help ‘ordinary working families’.

The pro-grammar lobby know they’ve lost the social mobility argument in terms of grammar schools and children on free school meals (FSM). Less than 3% of children at grammar school are listed as FSM, and most of those only spend a short time on FSM. That is why Theresa May has shifted the argument to what she calls ‘ordinary working families’ i.e. above free meal entitlement but low income.

Faulty figures have been used to suggest that 45% of grammar school pupils are below median income – an unlikely calculation. Even if that were true, the data in Mansfield’s report still ends up revealing that grammar schools are letting down low income families.

The report (page 53) draws on data from Cambridge University. It divides the population into five: the lowest quintile Q1 are largely FSM. The second quintile Q2 fit Theresa May’s notion of ‘ordinary working families’. Cambridge admitted 572 grammar school pupils in 2017, but only 22 from Q1 and 32 from Q2, compared with 297 from Q5. Even this might not tell the whole story: the quintiles are based on the areas where children live, and not every Cambridge entrant living in Q1 or Q2 is from a low income family.

The argument for grammar school expansion falls flat on its face. If grammar schools were set up across the rest of England, i.e. if another 500 or so grammar schools were opened, only an extra 20 or so young people would reach Cambridge – hardly the basis for such major policy change.

Continue reading

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , , ,