Education Policy : Surely it’s time to put on some clothes ?

Two interesting documents were in circulation today. What makes them particularly interesting is that they point two rather large and undeniable fingers at the naked madness at the very heart of education policy in this country.

Emperor Wilshaw’s Splendid New Suit

The first was this blog which examined the link between Ofsted inspection results and the prior attainment of students in those schools. It’s a long document, and if I’m honest, I think the author was trying much harder than I would to avoid spelling out some rather obvious conclusions in black and white. But then, if his willingness to soft-soap it a bit means that it will get heard by those who need to hear it, all the better.

I have no such qualms, as no bugger with any influence over education policy gives a stuff what I say, so let me summarise the main points :

There is a very clear and direct relationship between Ofsted judgements and the prior attainment of the students in any school. This persists across primary and secondary. Here’s a couple of shamelessly plagiarised graphs from the blog for those who like visual confirmation.


Secondary Ofsted Outstanding Judgement: The scatterplot highlights that there are notably less schools who have below average prior attainment that have an Ofsted Outstanding judgement.


Secondary Ofsted Inadequate Judgement: The scatterplot highlights that there are more schools who have below average prior attainment that have an Ofsted Inadequate judgement. It also shows that where pupil outcomes are higher, it is less likely that the Ofsted judgement will be Inadequate.

So essentially, Ofsted don’t judge what the school is doing, so much as judge whether the kids are able or not. Got clever kids coming into your nice school in a middle class area ?  Great, have an “outstanding”, no matter what you’re doing with them. Your economically disadvantaged kids are below average in prior attainment ? You must be a terrible school, no matter what you’re achieving with them. Have an “Inadequate” and I’m on the phone to Harris’s favourite academy broker right now.

This isn’t new, of course. I’ve previously linked to this excellent blog which found much the same some time ago. But there’s something satisfying about seeing the complete absence of clothes on Emperor Wilshaw in a week in which he issued yet another statement of how teachers are all FAILING. Physician, heal thyself. Or perhaps just take thine organisation off to Dignitas.

I hear politicians all the time saying that Ofsted are a key part of the system, usually after yet another balls-up has been uncovered, like the Trojan Horse farce, the dodgy Norfolk tip-offs, or the inspectors who write reports which Head Office say they aren’t writing. Indeed, plenty of sane and rational people, after delivering a devastating and factually accurate critique of whatever nonsense Ofsted has recently inflicted on schools, will then mutter something suggesting they accept the need for Ofsted. It’s almost like one has to offer at least grudging admiration for Emperor Wilshaw’s splendid new suit if one wishes to be taken seriously. This, I think, is missing the whole point of the Emperor’s New Clothes fairytale. There was a moral to that story, and it wasn’t that we should all go on cheering while Wilshaw’s todger flaps about in the wind.

Let me be as clear as I can be : at present Ofsted add no value to the education system – their current incarnation is entirely negative. Their judgements have as much value as wet toilet paper, and their inspectors are about as pleasant to encounter. They destroy careers, regularly attack the reputation of the teaching profession publicly, wrongly justify the privatisation of schools into chains, and force thousands of schools to impose insane workload on teachers in the name of their latest fad. They justify this by pretending that they hold some holy writ, some divinely granted expertise, which allows them to judge, impartially and accurately, whether a school is doing A Good Job ™.

Yet what they actually do is wander into a school and look around. If the students seem nice and clever, the school is likely to be found good or outstanding. If the kids seem a bit rough around the edges, or a bit less clever, then the school is much more likely to be found inadequate or requiring of improvement. For these earth-shatteringly important judgements, they charged you and I, the taxpayer, £168million last year. Nice work if you can get it.


Michael Wilshaw arrives at the Radio 4 Today Programme to tell us how teachers are FAILING another group of pupils

I could imagine a theoretically valuable role for an inspectorate. However, it would have to be an inspectorate which : was able to see what was in front of its face in the case of extremist infiltration; it would have to be politically neutral and not provide handy judgements and information for Ministerial friends; it would have to avoid dictating the minutiae of pedagogical practise in 20,000 schools; and above all, it would have to be able to produce judgements which were based on rather more than just whether the kids in a school were clever to begin with.

Ofsted is currently a bad joke. It has been for a very long time now. I think when an organisation becomes this laughably inept, randomly incompetent and borderline corrupt, then repair isn’t a realistic option. We need to sweep this pile of rubbish into the dustbin of failed education policy, and begin again. However, we can start that by pointing at Wilshaw and shouting a bit louder about the transparent ridiculousness of his contemptible little empire.


Is anybody wearing any clothes ?

The next handy document is this one. It addresses the issue of the non-existence of linear progression in learning.

I’ve written about this issue before. I know it’s bad form to quote one’s own work, but I’m going to anyway :

The following fact never ceases to amaze and appall me : I don’t know a single person, anywhere, in the whole education system, who believes that all children learn in straight lines, improving their skills, understanding and knowledge at the same, constant pace, irrespective of age, ability or interest. There is not one rational educationalist in the world who doesn’t acknowledge that learning is not linear; more of a twisty mountain track over hill and down dale, than a roman highway up an endless 45 degree slope. Yet the assumption of all children making the same amount of progress, at the same speed, over the same period of time, is the fundamental underpinning of the entire Ofsted inspection system. It has such power that you can see simple diagrams in school reports and on school walls all over the country, showing with those smooth, straight lines how levels will increase for all children at the same rate over time.

That. Is. Mad.

What the authors of this document have done is to say the above again, in more words, more politely, and with lovely graphs.

This very week, Wilshaw announced to all who would listen that schools were once again failing. This time, schools were failing to provide bright students with the opportunity to succeed, apparently. This whole announcement was made on the basis of linear progression. In other words, it’s nonsense.

Think about that for a moment : the man in charge of our nation’s school inspectorate, who is treated as the Voice of God on what is, and isn’t, good education, stood up and said something which is demonstrable rubbish. He issued forth something with the same reason, logic and reality behind it, as a 9/11 conspiracy theory website. His point was nonsense, meaningless tripe. This isn’t one of those areas where there are differences of opinion, or cases not proven : it’s very, very clear. Yet the media organisations simply repeated this garbage as if it were chiselled on tablets of stone handed down on Mount Woodhead by God Gove Almighty Himself. He walked out into the public, waved his naked arse in our faces and invited us to admire his shiny new pantaloons. And most people did.

What is it about education policy that gives fantasists the ability to pass off utter fabrications as truths, and then walk away unchallenged ? Is it not time to start pointing at the saggy man boobs and unpleasant back hair, and demanding that we have policy which at least bears a passing relationship to reality, delivered by an organisation which doesn’t appear to live in an alternative universe ?

This needs to be shouted very loudly, because we can develop our theme of the emperor’s new clothes to go much further than dear old Michael Wilshaw and his joke of an organisation. Just think, for a moment, about how much central education policy is based on the myth of the linear learner :

  • Performance related pay is based on the concept that one can predict the linear progress of a certain group of students, and hold the teacher accountable for that.
  • Much league table information, used to hold schools to account publicly, is based on the idea that one can predict linear outcomes from certain starting points
  • Ofsted’s inspection regime is based on the idea of linear progression from point A to Point B for various sub-groups of students (at one point, they expected to see linear progression IN EVERY LESSON!)
  • The ALPS data which many schools use to measure their achievement is based on an idea of linear progression
  • Raise Online, my friend Jack Marwood’s bête noire, involves linear progression assumptions
  • Judgements about whether schools should be privatised into academy chains are based, in part, on the degree to which they have achieved linear progression

emperor 1

Civil servants at the DFE prepare another policy announcment

These are not fringe policies. They are central drivers of what happens inside our schools, and across the education system more widely. Yet they are based on a myth. Learning is not linear. Children are not robots. Teachers are not Stakhanovite miners. Schools are not Soviet tractor factories. LIFE IS NOT A STRAIGHT LINE.

Can anyone think of any other major essential public service in which policy is driven by something which is a demonstrable fantasy? This is the equivalent of the medical profession abandoning everything developed since Pasteur and returning to medicine based on the Four Humours. It’s like basing future energy policy on the idea that perpetual motion machines can replace our power plants. It’s mad. Our education policy is based on children WHO DON’T EXIST!

Isn’t it time that we put some clothes on that Ofsted guy? And while we’re at it we could throw a few onesies around in the DFE; there hasn’t been so much nakedness in Whitehall since Harvey Proctor was an MP.

I know I’m shouting. Don’t you feel a bit like shouting ? I think I feel a headache coming on. It’s probably the evil spirits inside my skull. The NHS hotline recommended a trepanning to let them out, so I’m off to find my powerdrill.


17 thoughts on “Education Policy : Surely it’s time to put on some clothes ?

  1. How many times have you passed a school with a big expensive banner draped across their gates saying ‘Rated by OFSTED as outstanding?’ Perhaps they need to replace these with ‘We teach able kids!’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good evening and thank you for taking the time to read and comment about the post. You are right to challenge the tone though it is worth noting that a) the post was written in support of a senior colleague @kalinski1970 and b) it was a co-written response. We had to accommodate two view points, respectful of two employers, and that was not always easy to do.

    There is, of course, a benefit to being naked, when soft-soaping. These graphics were not the only lines of enquiry we explored and we where very aware that some of the evaluations were broad, though as you say “very clear and direct.” We hope to explore a handful of the secondary questions that we collated, as well as the numbers questions were have received since we posted only yesterday. Appreciate the follow up and any further opinions you have and develop in due course.


    • Thanks for the reply Kristian. I intended no criticism. I write polemics intended to entertain. That won’t get me many invitations to sit-downs with Ministers. However, as mentioned above, if a more gentle approach can still convey the same key messages but also gain access to the right ears and maybe begin the journey towards a less irrational education policy, then that’s a very valuable role.

      One further point I’d make is that one of the problems we face as educationalists coming up against politicians, is that we naturally adopt nuanced positions informed by evidence, explore the pros and cons, and accept that simplicity is rarely an option. Politicians, on the other hand – and I include Wilshaw as a politician, not an educationalist – practise the art of simplification and soundbite. So when they say “State schools are failing bright students”, that might be obvious nonsense to us, but it impacts on the public, because our response as educationalists tends to start with “It’s not as simple as that…” by which point the listening public have already turned off.

      The education world produces reams of well-thought-out, carefully evidenced research every year, and I know many of us get frustrated when this seems to have no impact at all on public opinion or media coverage, whereas some clown from Ofsted stands up and says that “state schools are failing girls/boys/gifted/less able/poor/minority/white kids”, and it’s wall to wall coverage and a further unjustified reinforcing of the widely held notion that state education is in a condition of permanent rolling disaster. However, if we want people to actually start to notice the nakedness of our policymaking cadre, we perhaps need to learn how to fight them with their own weapons : simplification, clear messages, and at-a-glance pictures which tell the real story. And, of course, a little humour to try to engage the unengaged.

      We need to shout a lot louder and a lot more pithily about the naked men from Ofsted and the DFE who keep parading through our schools demanding we admire their clothes. I thought your graphs were extremely powerful, which is why I reproduced them here with attribution to your blog (which I hope you don’t mind).

      I’ll be reading your further findings with interest. I just hope someone in the Labour Party reads them too, so that May might represent a low-water mark in mad education policy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought you’d like to hear this one. I got told today that I was not to alert the whole staff via e- mail to the pleasures of reading your post because there were comments that might be seen as critical of school policy. How’s that for an Orwellian present?

    But don’t worry I am sure that I can find other ways of alerting the staff to your excellent missives.

    keep up the good work

    Liked by 2 people

    • Seriously ? Ha !

      Headteacher : “There’s this guy pointing out that I’ve got no clothes on”

      Deputy : “Hmm. Well I CAN see your nuts.”

      Headteacher : “This is awful. I don’t want the staff all seeing my meat and two veg!”

      Deputy : ” How about putting some clothes on then ?”

      Headteacher : “Don’t be bloody ridiculous. Just blind every member of staff. That’s a much better solution.”

      Good work, your school.

      I love the idea that my blog might become like dissident newsletters being smuggled around East Berlin in 1965.

      Liked by 5 people

  4. I’ve had a message from the editor of Education for Liberation magazine, widely read within the NUT, that he would like to publish a version of this in print. Please can you email a.s.a.p

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sadly I think I did meet a deputy head who thought that childrenreally did learn in straight lines and that if they weren’t meeting a target it was the teacher’s fault for not pushing hard enough.


    • I have worked with several heads and deputies who not only believe in linear progress over a key stage, but split this into 6 week linear progress targets, with whole school monitoring points to show this. The reasons for any student not showing this progress must be explained by the teacher and accompanied by lengthy descriptions of strategies implemented and future “improvement plans”.

      Strangely, most teachers fill in the monitoring to show the “correct” level of progress rather than go through the additional paper work involved.

      Linear progress is, therefor, a proven fact in the school.

      Until you get to the end of year 11, when the teacher who taught GCSE student for the final 2.5 terms of their 5 year secondary education will carry the entire praise/blame for each of their students’ progress in their subject. This is known as “accountability”.

      Liked by 2 people

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