How can you tell if a school is any good? Look at its Ofsted report. That will tell you all you need to know about educational standards at any given school. It will give you an accurate and balanced perspective on how every school is doing. Failing that, look up its performance tables entry. That will tell you everything about how well its pupils achieve. Attainment, progress, attendance, progression rates – you name it, it will give you chapter and verse. An unambiguous and clear portrait of a school’s strength and weaknesses.
How can you tell what a school stands for, what its values are, and what it holds dear? Easy. Just read its mission statement and the statement of values on its website. Have a look at its prospectus or school brochure. That will provide you with a clear picture of how it values children, parents, and its teachers and support staff.
Except, of course, these things won’t do that. They will only ever give you a partial or even potentially distorted picture of what a school community does, what it represents, and what it helps its pupils to achieve. Yet the above proxies for the quality of education a school provides have become the shorthand for parents, the media, and the Department for Education to weigh, measure, categorise, valorise, and condemn schools and their communities. Indeed, the current government uses the disputed statistic that thanks to their reforms there are now “1.9 million young people studying in good or outstanding schools” as the cornerstone of its claims that their reforms are having an impact. These performance indicators have become everything, costing people their jobs, corroding community confidence in their schools, and causing schools to be handed over to other organisations with no links to their communities.
You only ever really know what a school is like by living it day-to-day as a student, teacher, teaching assistant, parent or governor. You can also get an inkling by visiting, observing, talking to people and gaining an insight into how being there makes you feel. The language people at a school use during an open evening when you tell them your child has special needs, and the perceived warmth of your welcome tells a parent more about how inclusive a school might be than elegant and worthy words on a website or in a prospectus.
Judging school effectiveness is incredibly hard. Gorard in his book Education Policy: Evidence of equity and effectiveness (2018) explodes many of the myths that are perpetuated through value added measures, such as progress 8, and through inaccurate assumptions made about schools through flawed inspection methodologies. Inspections make hard and fast judgements on the basis of very short and limited case studies that can only at best offer ‘fuzzy generalisations’ (Bassey, 1999). Progress 8 often says more about the intake of a school or its willingness to maximise measurable outcomes than it does about how it educates its children. These reductive measures need therefore to be seen as part of a wider picture of evaluating schools and not the picture itself.
Meyer and Rowan (1988) coined the phrase ‘the logic of confidence’ to describe the commonly held and taken for granted assumptions about what represented a good quality education, before the advent of high stakes audit based accountability. What characteristics might one reasonably expect of a good school providing a good education funded from the public purse? A list of these characteristics might include: good teaching, good behaviour, a broad and balanced curriculum, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, and high expectations. Prior to inspections and league tables much of this was taken on trust by parents and carers. This trust was based on trust in teachers as professionals and in headteachers and senior leaders to ensure the best needs of pupils were being met. This logic of confidence has arguably been wholly superseded by measures of ‘performativity’ (Ball, 2003). Paradoxically, performance measures have perhaps done more than anything else to undermine the very foundations of any logic of confidence because they have become the drivers of behaviours that are arguably not in the best interests of pupils and undermine trust in teachers, school leaders, and schools.
It is worth noting that I am not about to advocate a dismantling of accountability measures. A night spent recently reminiscing with school friends about my secondary modern education between 1982 and 1987 was enough to reinforce the conviction that I already held that accountability measures are necessary to help schools understand their responsibilities and to help ensure that children get the best possible deal. However, in the case of my own high school, years of high stakes accountability have not made it any easier for the school to overcome the challenges it faces in terms of its highly segregated intake (Gorard, 2018) in a selective authority. What I am advocating is an exploration of what that logic of confidence could and perhaps does already mean for parents and carers all over the country today.
Such a task is not a given. Recent Twitter spats over silent corridors, mobile phone bans, and the continuing discord around selective education or knowledge versus skills reveal that consensus in education is often not easy to come by. I would argue, however, that it is not impossible. Organisations such as the Headteachers’ Roundtable (HTRT) and Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) have endeavoured to establish a logic of confidence through their establishment of core principles. These are not exhaustive lists, but they are very useful starting points for debate and discussion.
The HTRT sets out 5 core principles:
- The pace of educational change should not be affected by party politics;
- Schools must be able to offer all their students the chance to thrive and flourish;
- Educational change should begin by identifying the desired outcomes for children;
- Prioritising high quality teaching and learning, and the curriculum will lead to world class assessment and accountability;
- The teaching profession should be centrally involved in developing future education policy.
PTE puts forward the following 4 key characteristics that “the best schools in the country – in the state and private sector…tend to have in common”:
- The highest standards of behaviour are expected in the classroom and around the school.
- They teach a challenging curriculum that stresses the importance of knowledge and learning facts.
- Children are tested regularly so their progress can be measured, and teaching amended accordingly.
- Interesting and stretching extra-curricular activities are standard.
Although both organisations come from slightly different starting points common themes and concerns begin to emerge and omissions in one demand attention through their inclusion in the other. As I suggest earlier, excellent teaching and learning, a high-quality curriculum, a rich extra-curricular life, and a focus on ensuring assessment drives learning seem commonly held principles. One might argue that the HTRT emphasises the principle of all students thriving and therefore of inclusion, whereas PTE seems to be talking primarily to those with aspirations to attend prestigious universities. PTE emphasises the importance of excellent standards of behaviour and of school culture which features less strongly in the HTRT. Would the HTRT say that excellent behaviour wasn’t crucial? No, of course not. The HTRT is a very broad church and I would envisage that there would be divergent views within the group about the best way to achieve excellence in behaviour, but not as to whether high standards of behaviour are important to school culture.
This attempt at seeking consensus has been found by exploring and cross-referencing documents from just two groups. The fact that different groups have different views and priorities is good and really healthy for hammering out educational ideas. It mirrors perfectly the range of different perspectives that will be found in any comprehensive school community of pupils, teachers, or parents and carers. Parents and carers of children with SEND might be very alert to messages around inclusion, just as the parents and carers of pupils with high levels of academic confidence might be focused on ensuring very high levels of academic stretch and challenge. Thinking across a wide spectrum means that we run less risk of missing something important.
Gorard (2018) is clear that the less segregation there is in individual schools, and the more a school community maintains a balanced intake of pupils, the better it is for all pupils both in terms of outcomes and shaping ‘learner identity’. Therefore, any logic of confidence should try to seek principles that work in the best interest of all pupils, not just a particular sub group.
What might a new logic of confidence look like for parents and pupils?
Here’s my attempt at 10 principles that might contribute to a logic of confidence:
- This school will welcome all pupils and ensure that it is supportive highly inclusive and safe;
- This school will support all pupils to achieve their very best and to thrive irrespective of performance measures and to develop strong learner identities;
- This school will ensure an excellent learning culture based on high standards of mutual respect and high expectations of student behaviour;
- This school will provide a rigorous and challenging curriculum underpinned by appropriate and effective assessment;
- This school will provide excellent pastoral support to support learners throughout their school life;
- This school will ensure that it helps its teachers to improve and reflect on their teaching and provide highly supportive professional development;
- This school will look after its staff and help manage their workload, as it understands that staff retention is crucial to the long-term success of our pupils and our school;
- This school will ensure that pupils have a wide range of opportunities to show leadership within the school and wider community;
- This school will ensure that all pupils have a wide range of opportunities to experience extra-curricular learning;
- This school will work in partnership with parents and carers to ensure that our young people thrive and enjoy great success. This will include potentially challenging conversations.
This process could be carried out at school level, MAT level or even across an LA to ensure that everyone is working together in the best interests of all pupils and not just the bottom line. It might even form the basis of a national education service. It would vary from phase to phase and from setting to setting. Special schools might have a different set of principles as might PRUs or APs. The key is to endeavour to encapsulate what your whole community of parents and carers, and pupils should reasonably expect from a state funded school.
Why is this an important consideration now, if at all? The imminent new Ofsted framework is going to have the quality of education as one of its principal judgements. In order to judge the quality of education there has to be some established principles of what constitutes a good education. Without this the inspection process could just become the subjective imposition of preferred learning policies where any judgement your school receives could be down to the individual preferences of the lead inspector or of the HMCI. However, these broad principles need to allow schools the flexibility to be able to interpret things and implement systems that work for them in their context. Otherwise new proxies will emerge to make the process easier. Mobile phones banned – tick. Mobile phones not banned – cross. Silent corridors – tick. Talking in corridors – cross. Isolation – cross. No isolation – tick. Standard key stage three organisation – tick. Alternative arrangements for key stage three – cross.
It is also necessary to establish a logic of confidence if we are to get away from the culture of off-rolling, admissions cherry picking and ‘SEND dissuading’ that exists amidst the demands of high-stakes accountability and graded Ofsted inspections. We can never take this logic of confidence for granted and must always ensure that we pay more than lip service to these kinds of principles if we are to be truly inclusive and support all pupils to thrive.
Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065
Bassey, M. (1999). Case study research in educational settings. Buckingham: Open University Press,.
Gorard, S. (2018). Education Policy: Evidence of equity and effectiveness (1 edition). Policy Press.
Meyer, J., & Rowan, B. (1988). The structure of educational organisations. In A. Westoby (Ed.), Culture and power in educational organizations: a reader (pp. 87–112). Milton Keynes, [England] ; Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Duncan Spalding is Executive Headteacher of Aylsham Learning Federation (Aylsham High School, Bure Valley School and John of Gaunt Infant and Nursery School) and is a member of the core group of HTRT.