The big ‘O’ has proven to be a popular blog-post topic since probably the beginning of the organisation’s inception, so I’m not sure what my two pence will add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I found myself in a Buzzfeed-esque Ofsted loop recently, going through more and more reports (guidance as well as school reports) and a number of things struck me:
1. What does it mean to be an “outstanding” school?
My plunge into the Ofsted website began when my interest was piqued by a number of education bloggers I follow. Knowing them by reputation alone, I assumed the schools they led were outstanding. After all, they lead the community in thought, they consistently push themselves to do better, they inspire their staff, who also blog, to work hard, and they set challenging goals for all their staff and students.
I was wrong. I found many of these schools led by visionaries were “good,” in particular among those schools recently Ofsted-ed.
I then decided to look up schools local to me, as well as those local to the last borough I taught in.
I knew what I was looking for – schools which were Ofsted “Outstanding”. What made the difference? I’m not entirely sure. The wording of the “Outstanding” reports seemed strangely similar to that of the “Good” reports, even down to the recommendations for improvement.
Finally, I looked up the “Outstanding” reports of schools I personally believe not to be outstanding, from conversations with colleagues and visits. This was a waste of time, as with every high praise I remembered another teacher anecdote and scoffed a little.
2. What does it mean to be a “good” school?
I decided to look at a school I feel is as close to outstanding a school can be under the new criteria. I read the “Good” report, which was similar to many “Outstanding” reports I had recently digested. I read the report from the previous inspection. And the one before that. And the one before that. All good. Each time, the recommendations for improvement were seemingly minor, and each time subtly different. Wow, I think I’d feel a bit cheated if I was the headteacher of that school.
I also looked up schools in that school’s borough, and they were almost all “good” as well, despite being reputed to be significantly worse than this school.
Is “Good” the new 2.1 degree? As in, it can be achieved with both limited and excessive effort?
3. What’s the actual difference between good and outstanding?
I’m looking at the subject specific guidance and feeling like I’m marking controlled assessment again. What really, really is the difference between good and outstanding? It feels very elusive if I’m honest. What I would love are some concrete examples.
For example, in the subject specific guidance for English I’m not sure what the difference between the below statements is. Actually, I’m not even sure I don’t prefer the “Good” to the “Outstanding” explanation. Am I missing something?
Pupils, and particular groups of pupils are well-equipped for the next stage in their education, training or employment as a result of excellent educational experiences. (Outstanding)
Pupils and particular groups of pupils have highly positive educational experiences in English that ensure that they are well prepared for the next stage in their education, training or employment. (Good)
Then there is the giant caveat that Ofsted don’t provide a checklist – it needs to be “best fit” in the opinion of the inspector. I’d like more information on the training of Ofsted inspectors, to be reassured about their training and expectations, as I’ve definitely met some dubious ones moonlighting as consultants (as have many teachers, if Twitter is anything to go by!).
4. Does it even matter?
Reading this blog, which I found extremely shocking, I wonder more and more whether an inspection team doesn’t begin with the end in mind. Do they arrive knowing the result, having explored the data already?
I was told once that it was all about the “feel” of the school: if the kids seem happy and the staff seem motivated, that is the most sure way to the Outstanding lane. But I would say that staff are motivated and children are happy in a huge percentage of “good” schools I know of.
Increasingly I wonder: is there any need for a four point system? It’s basically a two point or fail system at the moment. Why not: good/not good? Why not, instead of awarding a seemingly random “Outstanding” accolade to a select bunch of schools who may or may not have “gamed” the system, make those schools work for it – if they genuinely are a cut above the rest, they can demonstrate this in a myriad of other ways more sensible than painting “Outstanding” on their signage, such as by supporting other schools or opening their doors to teachers from “Good” schools seeking to improve to stratospheric heights.
Because that’s the thing – I have worked in an “Outstanding” school, and definitely believe that there are many schools which are genuinely incredible schools which have much to teach. But there are enough which seem to have achieved this without the support and belief of the local, teaching or pupil community to make me question it.
Furthermore, although my last school was undoubtedly an incredible place to train and work (I adored it), we also lived under the fear of “demotion” as a result of the next impending Ofsted, and that is no way to motivate staff to do a great job day in, day out.
For extended reading, I point you to the Master of Ofsted blogs, Andrew Old, who has done more report analysis than you can shake a stick at.