Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Why I’m optimistic about the new Chief Inspector

Guardian journalist and ex-teacher, Michelle Hanson thinks education in the UK is “going down the pan”. In this article she tells us her memories of working as a teacher still make her “feel a bit queasy” whenever she so much as walks past a school. I can only imagine what kind of horrors she might have endured and I have nothing but sympathy for the many thousands of teachers who, like Michelle, chose to get out of the classroom and do something less injurious to their mental health.

She’s absolutely right to point out that the “preparation, planning, note-taking, sudden irrational initiatives, testing and obligatory arse-covering are at teacher-crushing levels”. The past ten years has seen unprecedented rises in teachers’ workload and I’ve no doubt that this has contributed to teachers’ decisions to leave the profession in their droves. While there’s little doubt that Ofsted have to take their share of the blame in all this, I’m less sure we should blame “ferocious parents” and am a bit confused at how Ofqual can be held responsible. As far as I can make out, Ofqual, under the guidance and stewardship of Amanda Spielman as chair has brought unruly exam boards to heel and done much to stem the rising tide of grade inflation, as is its remit.

Even the recent attempts by the Department for Education to be seen to be listening to teachers’ anxiety about workload and the Herculean efforts by Ofsted to reinvent itself as less “pitiless” are to be admired. Why then is Hanson so appalled at Spielman’s appointment as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector? As far as I can make it out, it’s because she has never worked as a teacher.

This is a fair criticism. Maybe it’s important for the person leading Ofsted to be able to make judgements on teacher quality. How can you be expected to do that if you haven’t taught? Well, findings from the MET Project suggest that experienced teachers are no better at judging the effectiveness of teachers than complete novices, despite what they think. In one study, experienced teachers were shown video of teachers performing in class and told that some teachers achieved outstanding results, others produced poor results. Teachers were then asked to judge which teachers were the most effective and ineffective. The finding was that fewer than 1% of lessons judged inadequate were genuinely inadequate, only 4% of lessons judged outstanding actually produce outstanding learning gains. Overall, 63% of judgements were wrong. When the experiment was repeated with inexperienced teachers or complete novices, the results were startlingly similar. Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we can spot someone else doing it well. That said, Spielman’s experience at Ark Academies will no doubt mean that she’s anything but a novice, so maybe all this is moot.

Hanson then intimates that Spielman might not be up to the job of overseeing state schools because she herself attended at a private boarding school. This is an ad hominem and in the words of Carl Sagan, one of the “most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric.” Let’s just ignore it. Confusingly, Hanson also seems to suggest that helping to set up “the Ark ‘top performing chain'” is a mark against her. It isn’t made clear why she might think this, but the scare quotes perhaps indicate Hanson doesn’t believe Ark’s results should be taken to mean it really is a ‘top performing’ chain. This seems snide and unworthy, especially as one of Ark’s schools, King Solomon Academy, has topped the league tables for value-added results for the past two years.

The penultimate paragraph is where Hanson’s argument really seems to “go down the pan”:

“Will she be impartial?” asks Fielding, hopelessly. “Does she know about linguistics? She should.” Let’s just hope against hope. Because she needs to sort out fellows such as Mike Dwan, multi-millionaire, who established Bright Tribe Multi-Academy Trust and is doing frightfully well “providing services to his own … academies”. Will she thoroughly investigate academy finances? Will she stop forced academisation? Will she fight for smaller classes in all schools, fewer targets, less testing? Will she listen to anything teachers say? Even if they justifiably strike this summer?

I’m not sure who Fielding is or what she – or he? – might think of Spielman’s appointment, but wondering whether she knows about linguistics seems a bit of a non-sequitur. As to Hanson’s other concerns, let’s take them in turn:

  • Will she “sort out fellows such as Mike Dwan, multi-millionaire, who established Bright Tribe Multi-Academy Trust”? I hope so, I really do. At least, as far as Ofsted’s writ runs.
  • Will she thoroughly investigate academy finances? Again, this seems like a pretty standard part of Ofsted day-to-day business. I’m sure she will.
  • Will she stop forced academisation? No. That is a government policy and completely outside of Ofsted’s jurisdiction.
  • Will she fight for smaller classes in all schools, fewer targets, less testing? My guess is, she won’t fight for smaller class sizes as the evidence suggests that although reducing class size to less than 20 students makes a moderate difference to attainment, it’s hugely expensive and there are probably better bets to investigate. The EEF have produce a helpful Toolkit to let us see what these might be. I’m also fairly sure won’t fight less testing, partly because this isn’t the job of the CHMI, but also because testing is much the fairest way to assess students. I’m sure she has some views on better testing that she might be prepared to share. As to whether she’ll fight for fewer targets, I have no idea. Targets for who and about what?
  • Will she listen to anything teachers say? Yes. I can categorically confirm that Amanda Spielman will listen to what teachers say. After I wrote this post about the proposed changes to GCSE English literature specifications she phoned me to talk about what could be done to improve things. I’ve since met her on a number of occasions and found her to be one of the warmest, most personable and most intelligent people working in education.  She’ll probably be even more inclined to listen if people don’t launch personal attacks at her before she’s even started the job.

I for one am mightily pleased at Amanda Spielman’s appointment, but I understand that others will have concerns. That is only natural. Can I suggest we wait and see how she gets on before we start catastrophising? “Impotent rage” seems an inappropriate reaction to what might end up being cause for celebration.

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