What really goes on in an ‘Outstanding’ School?

The Ofsted framework currently grades schools using a four-tiered system. After an inspection, usually lasting between one and two days, the grade given is either ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’, or ‘Inadequate’. The importance of this grade cannot be understated; a good or outstanding judgement ensures job security for the leadership team, satisfied parents and the knowledge that there will be no repeat visit for three to five years. Obtaining a lesser grade is, educationally, a disaster (as it should be, you might be thinking, but we’ll come to that in a moment). Requiring improvement means that the inspectors will be back repeatedly throughout a two year window to ensure that standards have improved; inadequacy means that the school will be classified as needing ‘Special Measures’; the headteacher will almost certainly be ‘disappeared’ and the school may, ultimately, be rebranded an Academy.

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The system itself is straightforward enough. What is more interesting is just how a school becomes ‘Outstanding’. The things that immediately spring to mind are, perhaps, high-quality teaching, engaging lessons and superior performance in end-of-stage testing. Whilst these things are measured to a degree, they are by no means the most important factors. Under new regulations, brought in in 2010, nowadays it’s all about progress. And progress is altogether rather more tricky to identify.

Schools are now issued with targets of how much progress children are supposed to make during their time in each phase of their education. These targets are measured by something called Average Points Score (APS). For infant schoolchildren; each year, to be seen to be making ‘satisfactory progress’ a child needs to make 4 points progress. ‘Satisfactory’, however, is not good enough, so children need to make 5-6 points (good) or 7-8 points (outstanding) progress per year instead. Currently an ‘average’ 7-year-old has an APS score of 15 and an ‘average’ 11-year-old has an APS score of 25.  

So what happens? In order to show this outstanding progress, able children are given unrealistically low entry scores. If a very able child is actually given a falsified starting score of 3 (when it should be as high as 11, for example), it’s amazing how quickly they can ‘make progress’ during the course of Year 1. They will then achieve highly in the formal assessments at the end of Year 2 and the school will look as though they have done an ‘Outstanding’ job of ensuring this child’s rapid progress. The reality, however, may well be that it is simply an able child making acceptable progress.

At the other end of the spectrum there are schools who take children from much lower starting points and give them a more genuine starting score of 3. Though these children will make progress, it will not appear as ‘rapid’. Often, it is these schools who will then be found to be ‘Requiring Improvement’, when in reality perhaps they simply do not have the same scope with which to manipulate data.

Such is the pressure on headteachers to show their schools’ progress; they have little option other than to manipulate data in this way. The whole system for measuring progress is so flawed that for a very able child who has been given an accurate starting point it becomes impossible for them, and thus the school, to show ‘Outstanding’, or even ‘Good’ progress.

Nor does it end there. Another, albeit less important, basis for an Ofsted judgment is results.  Now this may seem obvious and again, perhaps fair. Schools need to produce children who are capable of continuing to the next stage of their education or heading out into the workplace. However, there are two factors that make this judgement dubious. The first being that tests on which the results are based is the same across the country. This takes no account of children’s backgrounds. A school that has a 75% passrate, yet only 15% of children speak English as a first language would be ranked below a school that has an 80% passrate and 100% of children speaking English as their first language. The second is that results are also looked at based on 3 years of historical data, so even if a school has gone through hard times, it will take 3 years before this is acknowledged by Ofsted in the results. Results therefore tell us very little about the journey some of the children have had to take, or, rather, the progress they have had to make, to get the point they’re at now.

Logical inconsistencies appear in the societal obsession with progress, and when grafted onto its earliest manifestation – the primary education sector – they expose this obsession’s structural illusions, and the reactionary ‘attempt to support [these] illusions with arguments’, as Freud puts it in Civilization and its Discontents.

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