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.

Modern life is rubbish

I’ll keep it brief: Modern Britain sucks.

I don’t mean that being here, actually living on this small island is bad, for the record, I quite like it – we have a national health service, the BBC, a good solid class system that allows me to feel socially awkward pretty much constantly, and some of the best cheeses known to man. No, living here, suits me down to the ground.

What I dislike about ‘modern Britain’ is that it’s now been appropriated by politicians and become a ‘thing’. Modern Britain has now, apparently, arrived and of course, schools have not noticed. While we’ve been busy teaching girls how to walk in a steady line whilst balancing a pile of books on their heads and developing boys’ aptitude for shimmying up chimneys, the world has moved on.

Modern Britain is totally new. It’s all shiny and fast and touchscreen. And that’s great and people want that. But they also kind of want traditional things, how things used to be – you know, cups of tea, starched shirts, McDonalds. Imagine Britain was like the Booker Prize and the winning book was a mash-up of Thomas Hardy and Irvine Welsh. Modern Britain is exactly like that. Classic, sweary, comfortable, edgy, shabby, chic.

Except…there’s more. According to facts there is also radicalisation, separatism and a poisoning of good old fashioned British values. I’m not sure what these British values are: imperialism, colonialism, Thatcherism? But in between the Old Britain and the New Britain is the Bad Britain. Close your eyes and think of Britain today: you’re probably getting an image of a tattooed Mary Berry piping salted caramel curry sauce on a Yorkshire pudding whilst sexting. That’s modern Britain, red in tooth and claw, and that last bit…that’s the bad bit.

This is the full hard core Britain that we, as educators, were just letting children blindly wander into. But now, thanks to Ofsted that is set to change. No longer can we just get on and try to survive in whatever sort of Britain we wake up to – now we must prepare children for a pre-defined modern Britain; the one that we apparently all want and have subconsciously agreed upon.

There’s just one problem…this idea of Modern Britain is a bit, well, naff. And I say that knowing that I’m discrediting my previous three paragraphs. That’s how sure I am that the people who decided, in the new Ofsted consultation, that schools should prepare pupils for life in modern Britain, hadn’t really thought it through. I mean I put a lot of thought into the Mary Berry bit (a little too long to be honest) and well, even though I reckon that’s the most accurate picture anyone has ever come up with to describe modern Britain, I wouldn’t want to hang my school’s whole curriculum on it – let alone yours!

But soon we’re going to be subjected to proving how we’re preparing children for someone’s idea of modern Britain. How is that going to work? Who is that someone? Why will their version of British values be relevant for my pupils or yours? And does anyone really think it’s going to work?

My suspicion is that this body of work will be reduced to box ticking. All over the country websites will change, ever so slightly, to make sure words like ‘modern’ and ‘British’ and ‘values’ are visible to impending Ofsted inspectors. Every school policy will be updated with identical incidental paragraphs promising that promoting British values is an integral part of school life. During the inspection Heads will do whatever the modern British values equivalent is of lighting a candle in assembly in order to pass it off as ‘collective worship’.

No school will actually sit down and decide for themselves what British values are and how they promote these in their school. And if they did, what would stop a rogue inspector saying ‘No, no, no, these are not British values…these are!’ It’s an inappropriate misappropriated mess.

I don’t doubt that the concept has come from a good place. But seriously…let’s be British about it and think about it sensibly. How about bringing back community cohesion? That was pretty good wasn’t it? Looking at your community, celebrating its strengths and challenging its weaknesses. Working out how you could give your children the best start in, not just modern Britain, but the modern world – an even more rapidly changing place.

Some might say, that schools have been doing this for years, even when community cohesion wasn’t considered cool anymore. Yes, a minority of schools may have failed some of their pupils by not safeguarding them effectively from the more sinister fractions of their community but their failings are lessons learned and taken forward by all of us. We don’t all need another knee-jerked bolted on initiative to put into action…we just need to keep our ears open in order to hear the winds of change because modern Britain doesn’t suck…it blows.



Game of Shadows



According to Dr Avis Glaze there are 21 trends for the 21st century that will have a profound impact on education and therefore the whole of society. During her talk at #ILConf2014 we were asked to pick our top trend. I chose number 16.

A spotlight will fall on how people gain authority and use it.

I chose this as it seemed to me to be a worrying example of locking a stable door after the horse has bolted, set up a meth lab, organised a red wedding and is now trying to become president of the United States.

For any cats without a Netflix subscription let me explain. The authority has already been gained, in shadowy darkness, and the spotlight, by shining on how it is being used, has been turned on too late.

You just have to cast your eyes over the ‘Trojan horse’ headlines concerning those handful of schools in Birmingham that have hogged the spotlight recently. These schools illustrate not the faults of Islam extremism but of the subversion of power within a particular type of school. As local authorities fracture, the cracks have been filled with unregulated systems of power.

Is it surprising that in these schools there are stories of governing bodies becoming distorted with an over-representation of a single-minded vision that has gradually suffocated and silenced the Head? Allowed to operate outside the local authority and with less checks than state maintained schools, for academies, there is no spotlight except for Ofsted.

And when the corruption and damage to a school-full of young people is finally exposed it should prompt the ultimate powers that be to re-think the system; instead however, their solution is to maintain the organisational status quo whilst trying to now catch everyone else unawares.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there. What about those academies where it is not the governors who are operating under the radar and on the sly, but the Heads themselves? Never mind the pathological lying crazies who syphon off the school budget to pay for parties, holidays, unaccountable pay-rises and an awful lot of shoes; what about the career nepotism? What about those organisations where the common interview is something that they have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with? I mean it is easier to invite someone for a cup of coffee and offer them a job whilst you’re dunking your hob-nobs, than go through the tedious process of shortlisting, putting in place a panel, coming up with tasks and actually putting a range of people through their paces in order to, you know, find the best person for the job, but hey…who’s watching?

I’m all for building up a team and spotting talent but I’m also a believer that the good will out. If I had someone in my mind who I wanted to get a job but found someone else better through interview then surely I still win. I get the best person, a nice clean conscience and the smug feeling that everyone else knows I make decisions for the school not for my convenience.

More importantly, if you do appoint through the nudge-nudge wink-wink system how are you building in accountability? How can you justify their authority and your integrity when the spotlight shines on your organisation and it casts no shadow? Your failings are always your own but at least when the gaining of authority has been proper, the processes you go through to sort out the problems are easier to put in place because we can rely on, oh what’s the word, ah, yes; we can rely on our professionalism.

Finally, and this seems like a far more trivial example of the 21st century gaining of authority than those mentioned already, what about twitter? Is it a sorry state of affairs that popular social media users gain authority, or if not authority, influence? I have experienced this first-hand (albeit on an exceedingly small scale) when I was asked to DfE to talk about the new national curriculum and life beyond levels. I was not asked because I am an outstanding Headteacher, or because I was an outstanding teacher or because I have contributed anything of significance to the world of education. I was asked because I tweet and have written one or two blogs about education that, if I’m lucky, contain the odd cheap gag. Is this really an appropriate acquisition of authority? Now don’t worry, I do not seriously consider myself to have any ‘authority’ with the DfE but the principle of government and policy makers allowing themselves to be influenced by social media commentators occasionally seems a bit worrying. I mean, can’t they think for themselves? Should they really go after popular opinion so lazily? Does a massively re-tweeted message necessarily contain a sensible idea?

Probably not.

But at least in the world of social media the spotlight is on. Those tweets and blogs are for everyone to read and opposition to any popular tweet is just as visible to anyone willing to be engaged. If, when the spotlight shines, the public do not like what they see, they will simply unfollow and the deranged ramblings will fade to black and cease to have any influence or authority.

The same cannot be said for those who have been allowed to have authority within a world of shadows.