What’s in a word?

For a person with a background in maths and applied sciences I can be unusually pedantic when it comes to words, especially if they are words which convey an important concept. There are some words that I feel have become dulled in our current society through over use and often misuse. For example, in my early 20s I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the word love as I felt that it was bandied about too readily. You can like a bag of crisps and maybe even appreciate it’s wonderful taste but to love it? Really? For this reason I had an alternative phrase that I used with my partner along the lines of the “Ditto” used by the Patrick Swayze character in Ghost (look it up youngsters). I’ve relaxed a little re the word love, which is just as well since Valentine’s day is coming up. However, there are a few educational equivalents of which my particular bête noir is Outstanding (capital used deliberately).

Outstanding (definition)
1.Distinguised from others in excellence.

2. Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention.

– Word Web app

Outstanding (synonyms)

superior, excellent, distinguished, prominent, remarkable, striking – Dictionary.com

Outstanding is in my view a word which has become dulled by over use in the educational world. Surely for everybody or everything to become outstanding is an oxymoron. If everybody is outstanding then they are all the same and thus no longer distinguished. What do we actually mean by this word?

Within schools we need to be honest. Often what we mean by outstanding is that a teacher has taught a one-off lesson 1, 2 or possibly 3 times a year which meet the current criteria of what OFSTED call Outstanding. Honestly? Is that the only measure of the quality of a teacher’s practice and the quality of learning that students in their care receive? It feels a little reductive and narrow to me.

Consider a teacher with a 20 hr weekly timetable.
Teaching 40 weeks a year.
That’s 800 hrs of teaching on which a max of 3 hrs is judged.

So is that what some members of Senior Leadership Teams throughout the country are throwing around phases like ‘Outstanding Teacher’ based on? Less than half of one percent of a teacher’s annual contact time. That’s it?
• What about longer term outcomes for students?
• What about the exam results of their classes?
• What about student voice?
• What about their contribution to other colleague’s development
• What about, what about, what about?

I would like us to stop using the word Outstanding, it feels a little like using the language of our oppressors. Yes, as professionals we must know OFSTED criteria and yes, we need to know how we will be judged but day-to-day we can use better and more constructive language. If I aim to be Outstanding and then achieve it, then what? Do I stop trying to improve? Do I stop aiming to be better? If I aim to be Outstanding. what happens when Outstanding is the new Good, just as Satisfactory morphed into Requires Improvement in the blink of an eye?

I don’t know about you, but my aim is to continually improve educational outcomes for the students in my care and my job as a school leader is to create conditions for others to do the same. This compels me to want to improve my practice as a classroom practitioner and as a leader. I’ll do this whatever external agencies call it and whether anybody is watching me or not and I’ll expect, encourage and provide opportunities for other people who I am responsible for leading to do the same.

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What’s the point of OFSTED?

The above is the rather blunt question I  that  posed recently during an occasional  focus/ discussion group that I attend with other educational professionals at the DfE.  It was posed to a civil servant who was part of the team who advises Michael Gove and was part of a wider discussion about the direction of travel of the current government.

Although it sounded a little blunt, I was actually generally interested.  In my mind there is sometimes some confusion as to whether OFSTED is about school improvement or accountability.  It’s clear that many teachers and schools feel and fear its accountability role but OFSTED itself often wades into the school improvement pool with reports collating best practice in various areas.

The response from the civil servant was very clear and unequivocal “Accountability”. Before going on to outline that school improvement was intended to be more devolved and localised falling into the remit of local partnerships, alliance and teaching schools.

“If, it’s about accountability,” I mused aloud “why do we carry on with the high pressure lesson observations when actually we all know that OFSTED tend to look at the data, make a judgment re what it is telling them and then find the evidence around the school to support the conclusion to which they have already come?”

So far so predictable but it was the response of one of my fellow attendees that made me stop, reflect and write this post.

OFSTED look at lessons to validate the judgements of the senior leadership teams.  It’s not really about the teachers its about whether they agree with what SLT have said about the quality of their schools.

Another participant then added something along the lines of

Yes the data is one source of evidence but they are really just looking at different ones to see if they argee with what the leadership team are saying

I may little slow but at that moment something clicked into place for me.  They were entirely correct. OFSTED is about the SLT, the fear and pressure that teachers feel is very real but it comes from their management teams not the inspectors.  How do I know this? because we recently went through a review by an oranisation called the Challenge Partners and the classroom teacher felt no pressure at all, because they weren’t put under any.  Some people came into their lessons and gave them feedback and behind the scenes there were lots of meetings with senior leaders and various TLR holders to justify what we as a school said about ourselves. That was it.

In schools OFSTED has become the bogey man but it need not be that way.  Leaders need to make it clear that actually we are the ones being judged not teachers. Still not sure? Well when teachers are observed do the best ones put any pressure on their students? No- because it wouldn’t be fair to do so as they aren’t really the ones being judged.