Is it time to abandon 'school improvement'?

Date: 16.10.2018

The government claims that more children are receiving 'outstanding' education than ever, but, as Ofsted announces another major reform of the inspection framework for 2019, does the claim mean anything? Are schools improving - and does it matter?


Are schools improving?

It's impossible to say, using hard data.

Ofsted: More are indeed Outstanding than ever before, but since Outstanding schools are inspected very often, there is a ratcheting effect: some have been labelled Outstanding for years, with no inspection to say whether they still are, so we can't really use inspection scores as a measure for these schools. Plus the framework has changed repeatedly so we can't say whether one Outstanding school is outstanding in the same way as another one is.

EBacc: EBacc performance varies widely dependent on the options offered. Schools have played the system to maximise EBacc performance, so EBacc is more a reflection of how badly the school wants to do well in EBacc. Schools who achieve high performance in MFL have tended to perform better in EBacc, so it's not an entirely fair comparison even if we exclude the first point.

Five A*-C etc: The switch to 9-1 GCSEs has eradicated the direct use of grades, at least for the time being. Now Ofsted are removing this element from their 2019 inspection framework, which will discourage schools from chasing the grades, they hope, so future comparisons will be difficult.

Progress 8: This has made it more difficult to play the system, but there is still plenty to play with, like EBacc. Also plenty of ways to do badly at P8, such as by offering EDCL, which reduces P8 performance. Also the methodology for calculating P8, comparing data from different cohorts in the calculation for example, is bound to have an effect - see Ofqual's recent report. Ditto capping very negative P8 scores so they aren't shown as negative as they really are, could skew things (not much admittedly).


Does it matter?

It matters to the government, because they want to be able to demonstrate that they are making schools better, yet they still keep forcing or allowing changes (see above) which make it impossible to say categorically that they are.

It matters to governors and trustees for similar reasons, and to school leaders because they live in a fiercely competitive environment - they need to improve in order to win more pupils and so stay/become financially stable.

It doesn't matter to pupils: they just need the grades.


What does matter?

All good school leaders (and most of them are good) want their schools to be the best they can be. They spend many hours, along with their governors and trustees, planning strategies to achieve this and they document them in written plans (SIPs, SDPs etc), then they review progress against these plans to see how well they've done. Yet no-one has defined what these plans should be like, or how success should be measured, how often, by whom etc. Ofsted seem to look at them, but their views are rarely reflected in inspection reports. The plans are often un-costed and have soft targets and don't look much like the kinds of strategy documents you'd find in a commercial environment. For many schools they read more like vanity projects for the head teacher.

School improvement is the responsibility of the governors and trustees, much of which is delegated to the head teacher, but governors and trustees don't really know much about how to create and monitor progress against the plans. Ofsted should consider this element of school improvement in their new framework: instead of telling schools what makes them good (and whether they are or not) they should help them define their own 'good' and advise on how to make sure their plans help deliver that. Maybe now they're shifting the attention away from pupil data, they can be more carrot and less stick.