Of Omelette, Ofsted and “Getting to Good”

2nd October 2012

Out goes 2008’s ‘relentless pursuit towards excellence’ and in comes ‘no excuses’.  ‘Assessing the impact’ is replaced with ‘tracking progress’ and gone are ‘difficult messages’ and instead, in their place, is the tougher more-2012-sound of ‘challenging conversations’ [presumably conversations about how there are no excuses for the lack of progress now being tracked].

But overlooking minor terminology changes and reading the reports side-to-side it’s easy to see that while one may be bare-knuckled  and the other is cloaked in velvet; they’re both essentially fists punching away at the same list of things we have known about school improvement since the early 90s.

The recipe for ‘getting to good’ is very simple:

  • A strong leader
  • Implementing a strong ethos and culture of high expectations
  • Have a list of ‘non-negotiables’ to be seen in every lesson
  • Implement clear behaviour policies
  • Keep and train teachers who want to be better
  • Get rid of those who don’t
  • Recruit only really good people
  • Put in place monitoring and evaluation cycles for teachers
  • Give a nod to parent and pupil voice (minor chapters in both reports)

It surprised me to see that both ‘high expectations’ and ‘non-negotiables’ were in the 2008 paper as I’d somewhat thought they were Wilshawisms. Indeed, the only notable difference I could find was a 2012 mention of training governors to be critical whereas the 2008 paper leaned more towards them being ‘supportive’. [This need for being critical was reflected in our own LKMCo research too].

All the ingredients and no cooking instructions

Unfortunately the problem with this recipe list, and (both) reports, is that they provide the ingredients for taking a school from satisfactory to good but the actual cooking instructions are still missing. It becomes easy to believe when reading this report that if a school just did these things then they would become an instant hit, but in the same way that just bringing eggs to the table doesn’t make an omelette, there’s more to school improvement than ingredients. In fact, I’m willing to bet that there are just as many schools that did not move from satisfactory to good during the time that Ofsted ran its research which were doing all the things on this big list and yet still didn’t get anywhere with school improvement.

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken with who will tell you that all of the above is happening in their school, but that it is still spiralling downwards, often because the actions are merely a cover-up for wider incompetence, egos and issues.  Soon after, an Ofsted inspection inevitably confirms their view.  One might say this is because the interventions are not being done ‘successfully’ but if the very definition of how to become successful is doing the interventions then we find ourselves in an inconvenient tautology.

Charles Payne grabs this issue squarely in his book “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools”. He notes the spiral of demoralisation occurring in schools where staff have dealt with unsuccessful reform-after-reform and have started to deal with it in negative ways. Teacher cliques laugh at any new teacher trying to improve the situation, ostracising them and undermining their efforts. Complaints are common when reforms are tried, but in the worst school lethargy has set in and although everyone tries to ‘look busy’ doing the actions above but no-one is really changing at all. Furthermore, in the lowest-performing quartile of schools in Chicago Payne found that over 60% of teachers said they did not trust their colleagues in the school.  When relationships have got to the point that no-one really trusts anyone to support them, or to do a good job, things are really bad and the ingredients may work to turn things around, but we also must be realistic and say that they may not. In some cases they will just make a toxic situation more structured in its awfulness.

In Payne’s view, where the actions of the list do work is due in considerable part to leaders taking the time to understand the history of what has happened and what needs to happen next given the context they are in and not just because a list tells them to do so. Yet even when this happens he describes principals who work away conscientiously for ten years at school improvement but – because the situation was so dire – it’s perhaps not until the eleventh year they get a final break-through.  We must not therefore pretend that these actions alone are the difference between satisfactory schools and good ones; actually, they happen in both types of school. The true difference will be in the way they are implemented, how they are understood by the staff and whether or not they help develop trust. In the end a head can punch away at that list all they like but if they don’t mix it correctly then the chances of a positive outcome are about as high as the person holding a handful of eggs and wishing them to become omelettes.