Can (free) schools avoid nonsense?

On Friday when I had a drink and a curry with Oldandrew and what seemed life half the teaching blogosphere I met some fantastic, interesting new people.

Among them was Joe Kirby. We were chatting about OFSTED and in particular OFSTED nonsense and Joe asked me if it were possible for a school to avoid OFSTED nonsense.

I said a school would have to have to be very confident they were outstanding and have the results to back it up. Even then because everything requires evidence and analysis of “impact” some nonsense is inevitable (the production of some form of SEF for example requires some nonsense)

He then asked whether it would be possible for a new free school to avoid nonsense.

To me that’s a really interesting question. My initial feeling was that it’s not possible. It ought however to be possible to minimise the nonsense and here are my thoughts as to how.

Before I continue I should define nonsense:

Anything that requires work on the part of teachers or pupils that has no obvious benefit for staff or pupils is nonsense.

Anything that requires work on the part of teachers or pupils that has less benefit than something else the teachers or pupils could be doing instead is PROBABLY nonsense.

Section 1: Pupil progress-

Before starting this section I should say that I think levels are meaningless nonsense. I think giving a child a level does not convey any useful information about what that child can do. Since starting teaching I have taught Maths, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Science, History, Geography, Citizenship, Art, Music, English, French, German and Art. I have had to give levels in each of those subjects and I have found that levels make the most sense to me in Maths. By that I mean that the levelling seems most objective or least subjective in Maths. From this, as a Maths teacher, I conclude that levels make no sense and thus I include them in the category of nonsense.

What do OFSTED want to know?

  1. How much pupils progress are making- broken down by ethnic group, gender, FSM, SEN etc
  2. What is that judgement based on?
  3. How secure is that judgement?
  4. When pupils or groups of pupils are underachieving what is done about it?
  5. What impact have those interventions had?

Given that pupils arrive with levels and that OFSTED still use levels for national bench marking (This may have changed but a few inspectors I know have told me that progress at KS3 is still judged by OFSTED based on levels) it would be very difficult for a school that only has KS3 pupils to avoid some degree of nonsense. That may change in the future but I believe that even with the impending KS2 changes meaning centiles are given instead of levels unless the government comes up with a system of measuring progress at KS3 that everyone uses OFSTED will continue to make judgements based on levels. The reason for this is simple. If every school has their own system for judging progress at KS3 it would render OFSTED incapable of making meaningful judgements about progress at KS3 based on data as they would be unable to compare progress to national averages or similar schools. Thus they would end up making judgements about progress at KS3 based solely on observations and KS4 results based on the assumptions that good KS4 results = good progress at KS3 (something I can assure you is not necessarily the case). This would create problems for any school that does not yet have KS4 results as it would significantly raise the stakes of the observation part of the inspection.

It would also make it more difficult for teaching and learning to be rated outstanding in the school. I have always found that the data is the most powerful tool in convincing inspectors that teaching and learning is outstanding. The two are inextricably linked. It’s far easier to argue that teaching and learning is outstanding if the data shows that. Trying to argue that pupils make outstanding progress using a system an inspector doesn’t understand that nobody else uses would be tricky at best.

Thus I believe when looking at pupil progress I think some nonsense is inevitable for now and possibly for the foreseeable future.

This is especially true because OFSTED don’t seem to hold internal baseline tests in high regard and tend to ignore them. All secondary schools are in the same boat after all when it comes to inflated KS2 results and this apparently makes everything ok when it comes to comparing progress in different secondary schools.

So how do we minimise the nonsense?

How much progress are pupils making?

I would argue that the most important things where making sure pupils make good progress is concerned are getting the curriculum right and getting the learning environment right. I will blog about those things in detail in the section about management and the section about teaching and learning. This section is more about how to SHOW that pupils are making progress rather than how to ensure they make it.

I would suggest looking at historical data for schools with similar intakes (as the free school will not have it’s own historical data). At every school I have worked in I have looked at the data for the last few years and created a chart of what pupils attending the school tend to get if they have a particular starting point or follow a particular path.

This allows me to talk to parents and pupil about grades in the future rather than levels. If a pupils knows that at this school most pupils who arrive at their starting point (on a 4c) go on to get a C or a D that is more meaningful than any conversation I’ve had with pupils about levels. It tells them that they need to work if they want to get a C rather than a D

If I can say “At this school pupils who arrive at your starting point (on a 4c) in year 7 and, like you, do not make progress (are still on a 4c) by the end of year 8 go on to get an E or F” it conveys the seriousness of the situation far better than just saying you aren’t making progress.

What’s even better is that you can remove the references to levels entirely in the conversations and just talk about the grades they are heading for. The reports could all have predicted grades rather than levels and at the same time the school has the levels on record to show progress when required. As every pupil gets a target grade from day one (3 levels progress or generated by FFT or something) their predicted grade can be used as a measure of progress against their target grade.

What is the judgement based on?

I would probably base judgments about progress on bi-annual tests. I would have the report on the first term based on a small baseline test in each subject, end of unit tests and largely teacher assessment.

In the spring and summer terms I would have test and move pupils between sets based on those tests

For this I would triangulate data, what you see in their books during book scrutinies and what you see in observations (more about those things in the section on teaching and learning and the section about management to follow). You could also do some pupil voice about whether pupils know their targets and whether they feel they are making progress.

How secure is the judgement?

If the data, what’s in pupils books and what we see in observations match up then we can be pretty secure that the judgments about progress are accurate in my opinion.

When pupils or groups of pupils are underachieving what is done about it?

The dreaded interventions…

I would have a compulsory homework club for underachievers twice a week. Work would provided by departments.

On top of that teachers would do the things they usually do when pupils are underachieving. What has been done is difficult to evidence without some nonsense unfortunately.

What impact have those interventions had?

This is shown simply by looking at the data, book scrutinies and observations the following term and seeing whether the pupils performance has improved as a result of the observation. Difficult to do without a limited amount of nonsense.

The bottom line is that inspectors are human beings (apparently, or so I’m told) and that means you have to make it as easy as possible for them to give you the judgement you want. They spend most of their time in lessons these days and that means management at all levels get much less time to explain things, argue cases and convince them of anything. A good SLT can sway an inspection team. Do you really want yours to be spending that time explaining your system of assessment?



2 thoughts on “Can (free) schools avoid nonsense?

  1. Pingback: Can (free) schools avoid nonsense? (part 2 teaching and learning) | mylifeasacynicalteacher

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