Come back satisfactory, all is forgiven!

EpicFail01The taking away of ‘satisfactory’ was meant to raise expectations. It was a canny move to signify that things had to get better. Teachers and schools could no longer rest on their laurels. From now on, if they weren’t good, then they weren’t good enough. You can see why, I mean would you be pleased if the answer to any of these questions was ‘it was satisfactory’?

  • How was the dinner I made you?
  • What did people say about the poem I read out at Gran’s funeral?
  • Was that just the best sex ever?

No, in all those cases, and in any other you probably care to mention, ‘satisfactory’ doesn’t quite hit the spot. So why, it was argued, should it be used to describe standards in education? More importantly, why would we be satisfied that children were getting a satisfactory education in our schools?

It was quite clear that something radical needed to happen to make us all buck up our ideas. We could have just raised the bar, turned the satisfactory dial up to 11, made it ‘one more’ harder to attain. We could have changed the interpretation of the word itself so that it was not seen as a ‘settling for’ judgement, but as an adequate description of getting the job done: no less, but certainly no more. But we went for something different: extinction.

Out of the ashes of satisfactory came a new judgement: Requires Improvement. This was a huge tonal shift in terms of what was, and what was not, now acceptable. After all, imagine receiving the response ‘I think if we’re honest, it required improvement’ to any of these questions:

  • How was the dinner I made you?
  • What did people say about the poem I read out at Gran’s funeral?
  • Was that just the best sex ever?

Suddenly, being satisfactory doesn’t seem quite so bad.

But hey, it’s all about the kids, and many of us agreed with the sentiment that satisfactory wasn’t good enough, so we rolled with it. A particularly shrewd move on the part of Ofsted was to not provide any descriptions for what being RI would look like. Instead, if it wasn’t good, it therefore required improvement. There were still guidelines for what inadequate provision looked like, to make sure that we knew the difference between ‘not good’ and ‘Christ alive man what are you doing?’

At the time I thought this was genius. Not because I thought more schools would now be judged to be requiring improvement (and therefore failing because being good was now the only acceptable status for a school) but because it would allow judgements to be tailored to the school. All schools are different and have their nuances; by not providing a one-size-fits-all-tick-list for things that are not yet quite right, I felt, would mean that an RI school would now have a carefully sculpted support plan that would fit their context.

We’ve lived without satisfactory since 2012 and, as a new government could be on the horizon, and as Ofsted itself is thinking about evolving, I’ve been evaluating the impact of life in the RI age. Whereas I still agree with the principle of satisfactory not being good enough and RI being individual to a school’s context I don’t think it has completely worked.

Firstly, politicians have not stayed out of it. Time after time schools have been told that there are more and more reasons why they are not good. The expectation that schools are responsible for solving all of society’s ills and challenges has allowed the apparently non-existent criteria for RI to grow exponentially.

Somebody decides that all infants should be able to read a list of words (some of them literally nonsense) in a test, if they can’t the school is not good. Someone thinks that schools should be teaching PE to a standard that will allow Team GB to win every gold medal at the next Olympics, if a school does not provide a medal winner they are not a good school. For some reason it is deemed important for schools to teach an un-agreed set of British Values, if they don’t (despite the fact that no one knows what these values actually are) they are not a good school. If the most vulnerable, damaged, and poorest children in our society do not make accelerated academic progress (it doesn’t matter about their emotional stability and well-being and how you are impacting upon that) the school is not good. If a school is not assessing pupils accurately (in a world where each school is now assessing pupils differently so who can say) then they are not a good school.

These are all areas that are highlighted in recent Ofsted reports. They are all reasons that can contribute to why a school is judged good or RI. But they weren’t in the rule book when we started the race. The world changes, I know. We have to adapt in order to meet the needs our children have in this rapidly changing world, I get it. But it’s not good enough to hang a school out to dry because at some point something either went wrong in one part of the country, or, something became a news story, and a politician decided that it was a school’s job to sort it all out. It is not fair that the lack of criteria within an RI judgement has become the stick by which to beat us with.

Secondly, the invention of RI and its misappropriation has damaged the psyche of education. It has allowed schools and teachers to become demonised too readily by politicians, the media and the public. Satisfactory may have been a dirty word behind closed doors but it had a level of acceptability to it as far as the public was concerned. In short, satisfactory schools were left alone to improve. Requires Improvement and its subsequent lack of clarity means that anyone can now get involved and lay claim to knowing why a particular school is failing. In reality this means that schools are sitting targets and anyone at any time can have a pop at them on whatever issue they’ve read in the papers that morning. Even the Prime Minister has encouraged parents to be ‘sharp elbowed’ and demand the best, not for all children, but for their children alone. This has undermined schools time and time again. The level of expectation for education is at an all-time high and yet respect for educators seems to be in the gutter. I can’t help but thinking it is partly because of this change in language coupled with a heightened sense that expectations – whatever they are – must be, should be, higher.

Finally, I have been reflecting on the use of RI in the classroom. I was talking to a Head on Friday night about making judgements in lessons. She pointed out that although no teacher was ever thrilled about being told their lesson was satisfactory, being satisfactory had never made a teacher cry. RI on the other hand…well let’s just say you better make sure tissues are in this year’s budget. Why is that? The Head I was talking to said that satisfactory was an important judgement to have in your arsenal as a supportive Head because it allowed you to take into account context. Even the best teachers go through rough patches for a myriad of different reasons, and quite often they’re personal. Yes non-teacher readers, teachers have lives and just like yours, lives are complicated, messy and sometimes painful. If a typically good teacher delivered a mediocre lesson you used to be able to use your discretion and say that it was satisfactory. Not great but no worries. If you were concerned you could go back in and observe again or you could casually drop in and see if things were ok – it was up to you – and nobody asked, as there were no great expectations to react to a satisfactory lesson observation. Now you judge it RI and what happens? Everyone wants to know what support plan you’re putting in place. Oh my God you’ve got an RI teacher what are you doing about it? Teachers know this. Teachers know that being judged RI has consequences. Without satisfactory it’s harder to enable the necessary subtleties needed to lead a school successfully, which, at times, means sensitively. I know we triangulate a range of evidence and that one RI lesson isn’t everything, but again, the emotional impact that being judged RI has on a teacher, I have to wonder, sometimes, is it worth it? As my colleague reflected on Friday, she was satisfactory for twelve years and never received the level of high risk scrutiny she would have done had the satisfactory been RI. Now she’s outstanding. Maybe she’d have been outstanding quicker? Maybe. Or maybe the pressure of RI would have finished her off along with half her teachers.

I still don’t have a problem with the concept of requiring improvement in itself. I just wonder if by removing the middle ground completely we were actually being set up to fail right from the start. It will be interesting to see how Ofsted develops and what our next government does to improve education and public perceptions of schools and teachers. I doubt satisfactory will ever resurface but there are times when I wish it had never gone away.

7 thoughts on “Come back satisfactory, all is forgiven!

  1. ferret April 26, 2015 / 5:38 pm

    Great post. Really feel that RI is a daft term to be using too, though, as surely (with none of us being perfect) we ALL require improvement?!

  2. teachwell April 26, 2015 / 9:15 pm

    Isn’t part of the problem that you are grading observation lessons when you are not meant to…if the triangulation shows a different picture then actually the observation is the least important as it is a snapshot whereas the data and books show what goes on day to day and week to week. The only need to put a support plan in place is if it’s RI across the board.

    I agree with much that you say but if you won’t even take the little positives you can (no need to plan, no ridiculous marking or extensive dialogue required, individual lessons should not be graded) then you are simply continuing the worst aspects of the previous regimes.

    • theprimaryhead April 26, 2015 / 10:26 pm

      I don’t grade lesson observations but it’s surprising how many teachers want to be judged. I agree, and follow, the point that triangulation is key, but again, it is the subsequent reaction from governors, HMI, local authority when an RI ‘occurrence’ is revealed that is damaging. A knee jerk ‘something MUST be done expectation’. I don’t think I am personally continuing the worst aspects of particular regimes but I guess that’s for me to know and you to presume. Thanks for your comment.

      • teachwell April 26, 2015 / 10:34 pm

        Fair enough comment – I probably should have asked questions rather than made statements. If that is what happens with RI I hate to think what happens for inadequate.

      • theprimaryhead April 26, 2015 / 10:34 pm

        Ha, indeed, fingers crossed we never will!

  3. teachingbattleground April 29, 2015 / 11:11 am

    “Somebody decides that all infants should be able to read a list of words (some of them literally nonsense) in a test, if they can’t the school is not good.”

    Ofsted deny doing this. It is, after all, a check to be acted on in the future, rather than the final outcome of learning to read.

    • theprimaryhead April 29, 2015 / 4:07 pm

      They may deny the weight of the phonic test but it is a key indicator (for them) that a school can teach reading (or not). Certainly crops up as a strength or area to improve in reports.

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