Improvement in our schools is not helped by Ofsted’s soundbites

For the second time this week the education sector has taken a beating, this time with the Ofsted report on the way that schools support high ability pupils.

By Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman

For the second time this week the education sector has taken a beating, this time with the Ofsted report on the way that schools support high ability pupils.

The report contains several sensible recommendations and highlights much good practice, which is a shame because after the derogatory, sweeping generalisations about a culture of low expectations made by Sir Michael Wilshaw in the launch of the report, most school leaders won’t bother to read it.

The issue of how to improve support for high ability students is too important an issue to be reduced to sound bites as Ofsted has done. We know there are some schools that should be doing more, but to suggest that a culture of low expectations is rampant in our schools is absolutely wrong.

The majority of schools have good strategies in place to support pupils of vastly different abilities. Indeed Sir Michael stated in his most recent annual report that the education system is continuing to improve and that it is unhelpful to imply that schools are in crisis.

Let’s look at the arguments Ofsted has put forward. Sir Michael said it is a scandal that only 35 per cent of pupils who achieve a level 5 in the SAT test at the end of primary school go on to get GCSE A or A* in both English and maths, or gain A or B grades  “in at least two of the facilitating A-level subjects required by many of our most prestigious universities”.

There are three issues with this.

First is the assumption that all pupils achieving level 5  are the ‘brightest’ and are expected to achieve A grades at GCSE. Level 5 is a wide band that includes a range of achievement, which is why it is divided into three tiers: 5a, 5b and 5c. The DfE defines ‘expected progress’ across level 5 as GCSE grade B. For those children who achieve level 5a – the brightest – about 85 per cent go on to get As or A*s.

Secondly, the A level argument is based on a list of ‘facilitating’ subjects commonly taken by students applying to a specific range of courses at  the most selective universities. These are not a requirement and many student progress to prestigious universities with other A levels in equally rigorous subjects not in this list.

They may also go into high level apprenticeships leading to specialised careers in fields such as technology and engineering where there is a desperate need for bright young recruits. Their achievements are ignored in this report in an assumption that the only valid measure of success is getting into a Russell Group university.

Thirdly, the government operates a policy of ‘comparable outcomes’ with GCSE grading, which means there is a cap on the percentage of A and A*s given out, so that it is comparable to the previous year. Until this policy is changed, schools and students can continue to raise their game, but it will not be reflected in the results. Indeed we were told earlier in the week that too many students get As and A*s, which is why exams must be made harder.

There is one other issue to take into consideration. Primary schools are judged on the results of SAT test – the level 5 mentioned above – therefore it is in their interest for as many pupils as possible to pass the level 5 hurdle.

This is the perverse incentive of using individual student assessment as a proxy accountability measure for schools. The question therefore is whether SAT results are a reliable reflection of a child’s ability or whether they have learned what they need to in order to pass the test – this is why most secondary schools use other tests to assess new year seven pupils.

This is not a swipe at primary schools, the same is true in secondary schools at GCSE.

In making these points I have been called defensive and complacent. This is absolutely not the case. Where there is poor practice in schools, where teachers do not use data well nor target interventions properly, clearly this is not acceptable and they should be called on it. That is what inspection is for.

But I do maintain that the majority of schools have good strategies in place to support pupils of vastly different abilities. Where students are underachieving, the answer is for parents, the government, universities, schools and especially Ofsted all to take responsibility for and work together to address this.

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4 Responses to “Improvement in our schools is not helped by Ofsted’s soundbites”

  1. LB

    The aspiration of 5 GSCEs at grade C or above.

    Doesn’t bode well if you think that aspirations are high, does it.

    That level is pathetically low.

    If schools cannot get children bar an isolated few past that hurdle then they are failing the children and society.

    14 years of education at 6K a year, and you can’t do that?

    Its a definition of failure.

  2. blarg1987

    Think it is more to it then that, a long time ago, skills were based on more then sitting exams which makes up the vast majority of the examination system. To say on average 75% of people are obtaining grade C and above as patheticically low is nieve.

    Yes we pay 6K a year towards the education system, however the private system can be nearly 6K a term, add to that the ability of them to choose the pupils they want and how many exams they sit it is not suprising they have better results is it?

  3. LB

    Naive. Lose a mark under the new marking scheme. ( 🙂 only teasing)

    To not pass English at C grade makes it very difficult to get lots of jobs. To not get maths likewise. That’s a very low aspiration since lots aren’t even getting past that hurdle.

    That is failing children. You can allocate the blame from parents to teachers, but those kids are being failed, and for the sums of money handed over to teachers, a large part of the blame has to lie at their feet.

    Personally, I think the blame has to be weighted towards primary schools. Lots are coming out of primary schools way down on their SATs. That makes it very hard to catch up. The rot starts early.

  4. blarg1987

    It is not failoing children, you go back a generation or two there were people who had learning difficulties and could not read or write well or do maths but are very hands on. Even I know young people today who are like that now yes they need more support so i assume you are in favour of investing more money overall? As that is the only way you can give them the support necessary. Or you change the system so that you improve their other strengths and make it more accessable for them to get jobs that do not require certain skill sets.

    The other alternative is teachers work 24/7 in which case when will you set the example 🙂

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