OFSTED has a problem with its image problem. Acutely aware of its disastrously low standing within the profession of which it is supposed to be the guardian, it has sought to transform its austere and inward-facing image into that of an open and responsive organisation capable of addressing the concerns of ordinary teachers about the quality of its operation and the nature of its impact. It was from here that OFSTED – employing new opportunities afforded through social media to engage in dialogue directly with teachers – has set about trying to slay some of what it calls the ‘myths’ associated with its name and which wreak havoc throughout the education system. Which, so far as any recognition that the existence of OFSTED has indeed wrought havoc throughout the education system can be considered progress, is something to be welcomed.
The latest clarifications surrounding marking have been particularly well received. Teachers, some of them living at the sharp edge of ridiculous marking policies, see OFSTED explicitly stating they are not looking for what is contained in said ridiculous marking policies and immediately sense that OFSTED is on their side against a capricious or at best ignorant SLT. Indeed, for SLT to persist with such policies, even after OFSTED have made such clarifications, further fuels the fires of injustice – for many, OFSTED are potential allies against a common foe.
And yet the hard fact is that many schools do indeed continue with ridiculous marking policies. And many teachers do feel exasperated. For all that OFSTED might try to paint themselves as blameless in this, there nonetheless still exists so much poor school policy being peddled under the guise of ‘what OFSTED want’. The busting of myths, in other words, is having limited impact.
But to defend SLT members for a moment here, one can perfectly understand why this might be*. After all, it is all well and good publishing a list of things you are not looking for – but if the things you explicitly declare you are looking for are most easily evidenced through those things you claim you are not looking for, then the incentives for such practices to remain.
To take the hot button issue of marking, one might welcome the clarification that ‘there is no particular expectation about seeing written records from oral feedback.’ But if this is followed by the demand that there is evidence a) student understands that feedback, b) has acted upon it, and c) evidence that it has made an impact on their learning, then guess what school leadership teams might just be inclined to suggest we do?
In short, if you say ‘oh we don’t need to see X, just Y and Z’, whilst the easiest way to evidence Y and Z is through X, then of course schools will keep pushing X, whatever ‘myth-busting’ documents teachers wearily wave in front of their leadership.
And who can blame SLT for that? The reality is that inspections are short and there is a lot to fit in. Inspectors need to see hard evidence. Written records and feedback is hard evidence. And however much OFSTED protest their innocence, with Therouxian levels of faux-naivety, inspectors can nonetheless conveniently have their evidence box ticked by precisely that which OFSTED are so clearly at pains to suggest there is ‘no particular expectation’ to see.
With the stakes so high, and the quality of inspection teams so variable, and consistency so lacking, and the chances of appeal so non-existent, and the potential impact on careers, schools and the local community so harmful… well, would you take the chance?
This is not to wave through the weak-kneed leadership teams who knowingly implement the impossible at the cost of the health and sanity of their colleagues: the ridiculous and wrong-headed marking policies one can find in so many of our schools are a just cause for resentment. I’m just not so sure we can so easily transfer the blame away from OFSTED for this, and dump it all so squarely on to the shoulders of leadership teams. The incentives in the system are perverse – it should come as no surprise that the policies adopted to meet them are likewise. A perfectly rational desire for (institutional) self-preservation would have it so.
A final comment. It should be noted that those schools graded ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ have more latitude in being magnanimous with their marking policies. I wish they would keep this in mind when proclaiming to the rest of the world how else it could be done. It is no surprise that schools in the lower grade categories implement such onerous policies upon their staff (further reinforcing that cycle which really they need to break.) After all, at the very least they need to show that Something Is Being Done. Yet those at the top end, with consistently strong results and the kind of intake that almost locks in the top category grades (hot air about coasting schools notwithstanding) can experiment with different strategies and a more imaginative marking approach that will be tolerated by inspection teams so long as positive results keep landing on the doormat each August.
Those at the bottom simply do not have that freedom. And in fairness it might be considered reckless to do so: should they try, then they immediately hand OFSTED a great big stick to hit them with should their results fail to do anything other than transform overnight.
Which is interesting. Because when one considers the geographic and socio-economic disparities amongst those grade categories, then yet another perspective emerges to that evolving debate about the challenges faced by schools in different locales, and ways in which education policy, and no less the inspection framework, might be neglecting or indeed hindering their progress.
*for clarity, I am not a member of a school leadership or management team. Just an ‘umble teach.