So is it progress and levels we want or standards and why #Ofsted may be partly to blame


Last week I posted what was probably one of my most popular blog posts in terms of hits (I won’t say how many though, I don’t get nearly as much traffic as others who like to post their stats) but surprisingly no comments apart from a few good responses on twitter.  Although I had been slightly annoyed with the issue of levels for a while last week did feel like a bit of a turning point for me where I’ve finally ‘seen behind the curtain’.  So this week I would like to consider a little bit more about what is actually behind that curtain.  What is driving this educational obsession with levels and progression when the media headlines seem to me to be about raising standards?

I decided to do a completely unscientific analysis of a few Ofsted reports to see how often they mention the words ‘progress’, which is very much linked to the assessment method of levels, as opposed to mentioning ‘standards’.  As I think it is fair to say that a large proportion of decision making in schools is driven by the demands of Ofsted this seemed an appropriate way to see how much influence Ofsted might have over schools when it comes to progression, levels and raising standards.

The first Ofsted report I looked at was the one for my son’s school which he has just started at.  It’s a local authority primary with a good local reputation under competent leadership.  Standards seem to be pretty good and the school was rated as good at their last inspection in November 2011.  

Searching the inspection report for ‘progress’ I found about 30 mentions of the word in the prose section of the report (not including descriptions, annotations etc) including it mentioned 5 times in one single paragraph.

Sample statements included:

“The leadership team has been rigorous in identifying the gaps in progress between different groups of pupils”

“Teachers plan lessons that are generally challenging for all groups of pupils and their high expectations have resulted in improvements to progress made by more-able pupils, including in mathematics.”

“The rigour, together with improvement in the rate of pupils’ progress, demonstrates the school’s good capacity for sustained improvement”

 I realise I am cherry-picking here but if you were to go to the Ofsted website, pick a local school and then read their Oftsed report I bet you will find largely similar statements.  Analysing these statements could take another whole blog post but I do want to comment on that last one.  I like the acknowledgement of rigour, but why do school’s need to always be improving the rate of progress?  I know it is at the other end but I took four years to do a two year masters.  Does that mean my achievement is any less than someone who did it in two years?  Another way of thinking about is if you accept that levels are valid, why do pupils always have to be moving up?  Could a pupil not reach a level in a subject and stay at that level for a while despite your best efforts as a teacher?

 In comparison I found the word ‘standards’ mentioned once. Here it is:

“There has been significant improvements since the previous inspection.  Of particular importance has been the restructuring of the leadership team, ensuring clear lines of responsibility and an effective focus on raising standards.”

That’s it.  One single statement on standards and it applies only to how SMT conduct their business and nothing to do with pupil standards.

Flabbergasted I decided to move on to the two secondary schools my children will likely choose between.  The first one I looked at is a mixed comprehensive which looks like it is in the process of converting to academy status.  In its latest inspection of June this year it was rated as outstanding in all aspects.  I do wonder how that is going to change after becoming an academy …

In searching for progress I found 11 mentions in the report.  The report is slightly briefer then my son’s primary one so I understand a reduction.  I was quite pleased to see that in searching for standards I found 9 mentions so not doing badly at all in identifying the need for standards as a key focus in school.  However progress is mentioned enough to remain something which SMT might invariably focus their attention on.

In the other school, also not an academy yet, I found 19 mentions of progress and only 4 of the word standards.  So despite the brief blip of the first secondary school I looked at there again seems to be this major discrepancy between the focus on progress and the focus on standards.

In continuing a little bit further I found another local primary school which mentioned progress 14 times and standards 15 times.  Although that’s still high on progress that perhaps also indicates to me a variance in approach between different inspection teams.

In conclusion:

It seems reasonably clear to me that Ofsted, as the arbiters of educational standards in UK, remain wedded to the notion of progress as a means of measuring the success of a school as opposed to a more realistic approach of assessing how a school is raising and maintaining standards.

I have had some objections to Sir Michael Wilshaw in the past (his position on low morale amongst staff etc) but it is clear that he is very invested in the notion of raising and maintaining standards, even if his methods might be different from others.  He has only been in post for two years (and some of the schools I looked at above were inspected before he came in) so I remain hopeful that he will be able to help change Ofsted’s course so that they begin to move away from identifying progress as a way of measuring success to the more logical and realistic means of raising standards as a means of progress.

Word have power.  I’ve seen school’s react vey strongly and forcefully to Ofsted reports, often in a very good way i has to be said, but if what is contained in that report is flawed we are going to continue to see schools being driven by a flawed approach from the top.  I don’t see it as an argument between left-wing or right-wing approaches to education but rather a difference between bad practice and good practice.


Image attribution

‘Still standing’ by Matt Shiffler


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