The new inspection framework-opportunity or impossible dream?

I have hesitated from joining the conversations about the proposed new inspection framework because to be honest I am really struggling. I respect Amanda Spielman’s recognition of the need for things to change and the direction of travel she seeks so I want to support the changes. But I share her pain. This is difficult. And there is a lot of noise out there as a result of a genuine commitment to consult. How representative some of that noise is remains a question.

I have many years of experience on both sides of inspection. I believe in the principle of an external view so I want inspections to continue and I certainly don’t want to see Ofsted abolished but I do want to see a radical change in the culture. Perhaps this is already coming.

As a newly appointed headteacher I and the school benefited greatly from an early inspection which confirmed the direction of travel we were taking in a school where there was no shortage of issues to address and recognised our leadership. This helped us greatly to win back the confidence of our community and address the challenges. I described this in detail in my book(p129+)

I have been an inspector for Estyn in Wales. It helped me personally to become a better headteacher and I was often told that my involvement as a serving headteacher was helpful and constructive.

So why am I hesitant?

I think there are a number of serious flaws in the current system. Until these are addressed the system cannot improve.

  1. LikeStephen TierneyI agree that the grading system has to go. It is having a disastrous effect on many schools which are being led in absolutely the right direction but in challenging circumstances and need to change. Too often I see them placed in a category leading to loss of confidence in the community, loss of staff and intake, not to mention the head’s livelihood. On the other hand I see schools with the ‘outstanding’ label which aren’t – simple as that. And I see really exceptional schools which are not given that badge.
  2. In spite of the efforts of Ofsted to address this there are still some inspectors (including I am afraid some serving headteachers) who are not acting in the way that Ofsted say they should. Though it was the right decision to bring inspections in house we are still missing the kind of experienced individuals who used to be HMIs and are still seeing too many contradictory behaviours.
  3. Though some will disagree I have never been a fan of the short notice approach. It is about low trust in professionals and reflects the prevailing culture in government. It is ridiculous that heads have to leave valuable off-site activities when they receive the phone call at midday because someone thinks they will be able to hide dodgy students if they have more than a day’s notice. If that were the case it would be an indictment of the quality of inspectors. No notice inspections are a different matter. They should only be used in cases where there is genuine cause for urgent action such as a breakdown in behaviour or critical safeguarding issue.
  4. The inspection period is far too short to make the kinds of judgements with the stakes they carry. This prevents the kind of in-depth discussion that would be an essential basis for an informed judgement. It is a major problem.
  5. Ofsted cannot operate effectively unless funded to do so.

These are all big issues but there are other great barriers which are beyond Ofsted’s power to change.

  • Performance tables remain the driver of practice.
  • Examination and test results overshadow almost all qualitative assessments of successful schools. It is naïve to suggest that schools should not explicitly prepare students for these high stakes exams and the removal of coursework has raised those stakes further.
  • Progress 8 and EBacc are determining curriculum design and will do until a government stops using performance indicators as a lever for practice. I see no sign of this happening. Ofsted itelf has a mountain to climb to reverse this kind of correlation between P8 and Ofsted grades
  • The government consistently promotes preferred pedagogical approaches whilst claiming that it believes in autonomy. As widely publicised it regularly  ignores evidence.
  • The data driven work of RSCs often conflicts with Ofsted’s direction of travel .
  • The indiscriminate use of emotive terms like ‘gaming’ displays a lack of respect for the vast majority of teachers and school leaders that undermines their professional status.

In my book I proposed the following twelve proposals for the future of inspection:

  1. All schools should be subject to a degree of external scrutiny by the inspectorate.
  2. All inspections should be led by highly trained HMIs who are experienced in that sector.
  3. The length and of the inspection should be proportionate to the performance of the school.
  4. All schools should be required to put in place effective self-evaluation processes. That is more than filling out a SEF. These should the starting point of inspection which would validate them by sampling aspects of the school’s work. The aim of this would be to judge whether the school knows its strengths and areas for development and had identified appropriate priorities for further improvement.
  5. Where inspectors have concerns about a school’s capacity to improve, a full inspection should take place and government should fund this.
  6. The outcome of inspection should not be summarized with a single grade. This is simplistic and misleading. Instead it should focus on assessing whether or not the quality of education meets a clearly defined standard which might equate with the current grade 2. (This would be comparable with a ‘clean audit’ rather than a number. The report itself would be in narrative form).
  7. The inspection report should focus on the school’s capacity to improve, describe any aspects of outstanding practice and areas for development.
  8. Best practice should be shared by Ofsted in the form of case studies and survey reports.
  9. Ofsted must be allowed to assess the impact of government policies on the quality of education without fear or favour.
  10. Compliance with regulatory requirements , safeguarding etc. should be the subject of annual audit rather than part of inspection which should focus specifically on the quality of education.
  11. Where schools are in formal federations or Multi-Academy Trusts inspections should assess the impact of that structure on standards and not just the individual school. Equally the same approach should apply to schools maintained by the local authority.
  12. The inspection should be conducted as a constructive, courteous and respectful professional dialogue. That does not in any way preclude the need for challenging questions to be asked or decisive action to be taken when the quality of education falls short of the required standard.

How would this be as a criterion for the success of Ofsted’s new framework?

A school in a disadvantaged/challenging context with outcomes including progress as currently measured are well below average receives a ‘clean’ report from Ofsted. It is recognised that the leadership are doing everything that needs to happen but have not yet had time to address it.

In terms of recommendations the inspectors could identify what additional support might help these committed professionals with their work.

I wish Amanda Spielman and her team well with this important work. As a profession we should do everything we can to help.


Traditional or progressive- does it matter?

In a recent tweet I asked the following question:  Could someone please explain to me what a ‘progressive’ or ‘traditionalist’ is with a clear example of living people? I am trying to work out what I was for 31 years as a teacher/school leader and don’t recognise what I read in tweets/blogs.

Twitter has many benefits. It provides access to a vast range of articles, research papers and other information that can easily be missed. Though tweets in themselves have limited use as a forum for discussion because of their brevity, it can be very effective when used in connection with the previously listed sources and of course blogs.


In recent months I have been severely exercised by the nature of some of the discourse on Twitter. Though much is respectful and constructive, some is far from this. The other real and growing problem is that some contributors forget that they only represent their own personal views as does this blog. People tend to follow people they agree with resulting in networks that can lead to a significant risk of confirmation bias. Those networks then identify other groups with a differing outlook. Though this can lead to constructive and rational debate it sometimes leads sadly to a highly oppositional and sometimes even abusive discourse. Sometimes that turns into valuable fodder for hungry media reporters or politicians who are after a headline.

My motivation for asking the above question was related to this.  If a reader had been a fly on the wall on one of my lessons during my 31 years as a teacher and head they would have seen a wide variety of behaviours and pedagogical approaches. In some respects I was highly traditional in outlook. I insisted on high standards of courtesy and behaviour, was a stickler for uniform and led very formal assemblies. On the other hand I oversaw a student’s council system that genuinely welcomed and encouraged feedback from students even when the messages might have been uncomfortable to hear and worked hard to eradicate the need for exclusion. Is that traditional? In the classroom my classes often worked in silence or experienced a highly didactic approach. But there were also numerous lessons in which my students worked independently in groups with me facilitating and advising. As with every other aspect of my teaching these activities would have been carefully planned, not for an accountability system or external demands but because that is what I think professional teachers should do.

So was I a traditionalist or a progressive? Neither. I hope that I was an enlightened, flexible and informed professional always keen to learn how to be better.

The replies to my tweet have been plentiful and reassuring. A number of responses reflected exactly the kind of experience I have described above and proved that there are numerous people out there who really are not interested in labels of this kind and recognise that the best teachers and school leaders are highly versatile and adept at choosing the most appropriate approaches for their students.

Too much of the discourse on education has become a stultifying conversation around false dichotomies and polarised viewpoints. In the final part of  Lessons Learned I set out how I believe this needs to change.

When did we all get so fearful?

In a recent blogI wrote about the excitement and exhilaration of the start of new school year. Nevertheless there is no doubt that this is an exceptionally challenging time for school leaders with immense pressure on many schools to be constrained by externally imposed pressures and distractions?

The big question then is how you can  have the courage to lead a confident school with staff who are genuinely empowered to do the very best for their students.

Though I would be the last to pretend that I got everything right or know all of the answers to such complex challenges here are some ideas and provocations.

  1. I would look at everything we did through the lens of a wise question at the front of an early Welsh inspection framework which served me well during my years of headship..

What is the effect of what is being observed on standards of achievement?

After all  – if what you are doing is not having any effect you have to ask what the point is.

An important aspect of this question is the use of the word ‘achievement’. With apologies for stating the obvious that is not the same as ‘attainment’ or results of linear examinations.

Achievement is about how well pupils have progressed in relation to previous standards achieved. That is not the same as progress 8 or assuming that KS2 results have a proven correlation with future attainment in all subjects. It is evaluated via professional judgement. Pupils with low attainment can have good standards of achievement and vice versa.

I would therefore want to look very hard and achieve an agreed definition with my staff and governors as to what achievement looks like. This would form the basis for the development of our curriculum policy.  As well as the obvious academic aspects, this would encompass a range of skills (sorry Minister but every employer I have ever met agrees that these need to be explicit) and qualities as well as all of those wider elements of a good education such as those often described as ‘character’, preparation for life, employability etc. The content of that curriculum would not be dictated upon by performance measures that undermine the role of vitally important subjects like D&T and the Arts.

This is a tremendous discussion to have in any school which colleagues will relish.

‘Exam factories’ are what government has driven (though some are currently trying to blame schools for this). It is not what teachers want but that of course does not mean that we should be failing to open those doors to our students for which examinations are the key. It is all about balance.

  1. I would also have at the front of my mind the statement in the same framework ‘Inspectors are looking for impact , not intention.’ At a time where resources of all kinds are under such pressure we cannot afford to waste time on anything that does not benefit our students or on warm words and hopes. I would therefore see it as my responsibility to sift and protect staff from the latest ‘spiffing wheezes’ that came from government driven initiatives or fads that come in and out of fashion and to focus on those ideas that genuinely had the potential to make a real difference. The question and statement above from Estyn would be a good criterion for what to choose.
  2. When people came in to assess and judge us I would be fully equipped with our own story to tell based on our own robust self-evaluation processes and data analysis. It is neither our job to defend low standards or poor practice nor to cave in to people who try to draw conclusions from superficial or questionable evidence. We need to know our schools well and always be seeking to improve further by listening to informed advice and evidence.
  3. I would have absolutely nothing to do with any invitations to bid for short term government funding. They are a distraction and tie you down to conditions that limit your autonomy. Often the bids lead to nothing other than a load of work.
  4. I would do everything I could to enable staff to share ideas, discuss what was doing well and what they were finding challenging. Conversations about lessons that didn’t work are immensely valuable and talking about them is certainly not a sign of failure. Visiting the classrooms of colleagues and discussing what you see is possibly the most powerful form of CPD I know.
  5. I would replace performance management with a constructive and developmental appraisal system and avoid at all cost targets that link raw attainment to pay. These are grossly unfair and demotivating. The system I would put in place would recognise the immense effort and impact teachers have in all kinds of ways  and identify ways of helping them to become even better at their jobs. Capability procedures exist for those who are underperforming in spite of all of the support provided. We don’t need to punish the majority.
  6. I would ensure that my main scale teachers had access to pay progression. I have been shocked about examples where this has been denied due to funding constraints or managerial decisions.
  7. I would invest in bespoke CPD for all staff. CPD is not the same as courses. There are plenty of examples of cost effective CPD much of which is based in school or within a federation or MAT. This is the most powerful driver of teacher retention.
  8. I would invest in initial teacher training and find ways of recognising, rewarding and developing those who stay beyond the first few years. We have a moral obligation to develop the next generation of school leaders.
  9. I would want to develop with the staff a really good staff wellbeing policy. I have seen some great examples in a number of forward-thinking schools that have found ways of creating time for staff to have some respite from the incredible intensity of life in the classroom.

I am sure that many readers of this will quite understandably be thinking ‘yes….but’. I’ll leave the response to Emeli Sandi’s words in her song ‘Read all about it’: ‘When did we all get so fearful?’  If there was ever a time for our profession with the full support of those that represent them to stand up for what we believe in, it is now.


All of these ideas and suggestions in this blog and many more are developed in further detail and examples in my book Lessons Learned? A Life in Education

Ignore the blather – enjoy the excitement of a new school year!

One of the most exhilarating aspects of being a teacher was always the beginning of new academic year for me. I still remember vividly my first day as a qualified teacher inviting my first class into the classroom and addressing a room full of attentive faces in their smart new uniforms about the course they were starting. My pleasurable task was to share my passion for my subject, interest and motivate them and hopefully establish the foundations of the kind of positive relationship based on mutual respect and confidence in my teaching that would lead to success and enjoyment.

Of course I didn’t always get it right and win with all students. No teacher does with every class and student – a fact of life that sometimes gets forgotten. Though I certainly got better with experience over the years we should never forget that teaching is not a mechanistic process. It is about human relationships – and that makes it all the more exciting.

That feeling at the beginning of the year never went away. Whether as a classroom teacher facing my new groups, as a middle or senior leader addressing a large group or as a headteacher taking my first assemblies of the year, that new start was always a pleasure. My use of the adjectives ‘exciting and exhilarating’ is deliberate. Part of that was helped by returning from a much needed break suitably refreshed. This highlights the reason why addressing the issue of work life balance is so important.

Each year I or my team had our plans and ambitions for that academic year. Part of that was the opportunity to set out that ‘state of the nation’ with staff, to celebrate their many achievements that had been confirmed by the examination results during the summer break. Of course, it was also to learn from what had not gone so well and understand what we needed to do better – a professional discussion about working together and sharing the responsibility in a climate of mutual support and respect.

As this new year starts all of that still applies. Actually, it is more important than ever because of the very specific challenges for school leaders and can sap morale and undermine retention. It seems that there has been a massive disconnect between the stated good intentions of the Secretary of State to reduce workload etc. and the continuous activities and announcements from the DFE throughout the holidays seem to have operated from a parallel universe.

The greatest challenge for school leaders in such a context is therefore to retain and nurture the excitement that makes teaching such a wonderful vocation in spite of these distractions.

The most effective shield for schools is the shared vision the headteacher builds across the whole school, acts out and articulates every day. Schools have recently been exhorted by Ofsted to adopt a holistic approach to curriculum planning. That can be easier said than done in the light of accountability pressures but we should hang on to this welcome direction of travel and deploy the armour of our vision to ignore any distractions including invitations to waste time and energy on preparation of bids, Ministerial ‘announcements’ and media noise.

We should be a proud, not a fearful profession beginning our new year with confidence.  There is no more powerful source of organisational resilience than a shared vision underpinning an ethos and culture that values all staff and welcomes their full engagement. Here are some brief questions and pointers to the kind of discussion that might help to achieve that common purpose:

What kinds of adult you want your students to become when they have completed the education in your school? This will lead the discussion onto values, personal qualities and all of those things that are often described as character. It will also lead it onto the kind of ethos and culture you want to pervade the school. What sort of relationships and behaviours do we want to foster?

Once these fundamentals have been discussed, the conversation needs to move to the content of the curriculum. What do you want your students to be taught? That is not a distracting and polarised discussion about knowledge or skills but a combination of both. Where will they learn these things? Much may be in subject lessons, just as much might also be in the rich and varied programme of extra curricular activities. I have written about these processes in much more detail in my book ‘Lessons Learned?’.

If there is one time of the year when I miss being in schools more than any other it is that first week of the term. I hope that every teacher and school leader who reads this will share the satisfaction and excitement I felt  31 times at the beginning of September. I wish you all well for the new year as you continue with your life changing vocation.

Some timely lessons about GCSE

As the first results from the new GCSEs are about to be published it seemed timely to publish this extract from my book Lessons Learned? – A Life in Education

I was an O Level examiner and smile when I hear people harking back to those good old days. To pass the O Level in German one of the main things you had to do was to learn parrot fashion a large number of phrases or idioms which you could put into a 150 word composition about something exciting like a picnic in the country or a lost dog.

Copying the lead of other experienced teachers and examiners who were mainly from the independent sector I culled a list of these phrases from scripts I had marked knowing that these all attracted marks and placed them all on a Banda sheet (remember those?) Each lesson we started with a test to see how many had been memorised. Let me give an example: ‘Trotz des schlechten Wetters’ means ‘in spite of the bad weather’. Since there was often a thunderstorm in the picture sequence for these stories this was a useful phrase to include. However I remember a chief examiner explaining to all of the markers that this showed that the student had not only mastered the fact that the preposition ‘trotz’ is followed by the genitive case but that (s)he had also mastered adjective endings and the fact that masculine and neuter nouns add an s in this case. This is of course rubbish. The students like mine had been given a Banda sheet of such phrases and learnt them off by heart. Gaming the system? Academic rigour? Many of the other phrases were highly amusing, most were not ones that would routinely have been heard in conversation in the last hundred years. I have had many fun conversations with my German friends sharing some of these archaic idioms.

The  other reason for buy in to GCSE was the O level / CSE separation. We desperately needed one examination, suitably tiered, which could be attempted by the majority of pupils and welcomed the fact that the specifications were very clearly defined building on the best practice from the graded objectives movement. Unlike O-level we knew exactly what we had to teach, what a grade meant in terms of learning outcomes and could therefore prepare pupils more effectively. Although Ofqual has disputed this[1]the examinations were largely criterion referenced. It was absolutely clear to teachers that, if a student demonstrated mastery of clearly defined elements they would achieve a given grade.    In my subject the examination gave equal weighting to all four skills enabling us to give the appropriate priority to the vitally important skills of listening and speaking as well as reading and writing.

To put it another way GCSE was not norm referenced as O Level had been. This meant of course that , there was no cap on the number of students achieving a grade leading to claims about grade inflation. These missed an important point. If grades were improving due to poor practice or overgenerous marking this was of course unacceptable and needed to be addressed. If however standards were genuinely improving then it would have been helpful for employers and higher education institutions to know. At present they do not.  And if genuine improvements had occurred a decision to reflect these improvements and raised expectations in future examinations would have been justified. What we were left with by 2017 was firstly that for every school that improved its results another had to go down and secondly that nobody can possibly understand what a particular grade means in terms of learning outcomes. The same student who was awarded a grade 3 one year might have been awarded a 4 or 5 if (s)he had been in another cohort.

Wisely, when implementing GCSE the government recognised the fact that teachers would need adequate time to acquaint themselves with these very different qualifications and planned for this. Unfortunately, the so called ‘Baker Days’  where schools closed for training were taken out of holidays to the anger of the profession. Nevertheless, having overcome that I was asked to host the session for all language teachers in Surrey. After presentations about the new qualifications we were given ample time to work in departments looking at each of the different specifications for our subject, the very high quality specimen papers and the detailed vocabulary and grammar listings. This enabled us to make an informed choice in good time to prepare our teaching programmes and purchase any relevant resources. It also brought subject teams from different schools together to share ideas and foster new and valuable links.

The new courses were a breath of fresh air and I and colleagues thoroughly enjoyed teaching them. That of course rubbed off on the students who made good progress and developed listening and reading comprehension and speaking skills that bore no comparison with those who had prepared for O Level.  Our A Level uptake increased substantially as a result. I would however emphasise that the majority of GCSE candidates do not study the subject to A Level. It is important that the tail does not wag the dog as it did with O Level. There is plenty of time in year 12 to make the transition.


Lessons Learned? A life in education.

This week my book ‘Lessons Learned?’ has been published by John Catt Educational.


I have enjoyed the privilege of a career in education where I have spent nearly four decades teaching, in various leadership positions in maintained schools across England and Wales, five years leading the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and now a period as a freelance consultant playing a small part in supporting school leaders in their unerring quest to change the lives of their students for the better. It has been, and continues to be, both a pleasure and a privilege.

Throughout my working life our education service has been on a constant conveyor belt of reforms largely driven by successive governments. Some of those have been highly desirable, some informed by robust and reliable evidence, others less so. With hardly any exceptions however, the vast majority have not been given time to embed before the next initiative replaced them. Equally significant is the fact that policy memory seems non-existent. As soon as there is a change in government all of the work done by the previous one is filed away and, with few exceptions, dispatched into policy oblivion. Sometimes these forgotten ideas resurface as shiny new ones for which their initiators proudly take credit!

Successive governments and secretaries of state arrive with new priorities, which they are keen to drive forward before they move on, often after not much more than a year. I have met many of them and without exception felt their passion and commitment to do what they believe is the very best for young people.

Nevertheless, lessons from best practice and failures are often not learned leading to many missed opportunities. The challenge for school leaders has been and remains to find a way to ride on the crest of that wave without getting drawn down into the undertow.

My book therefore sets out to do three things:

  1. Through the narrative of my own experience and reference to theory I have reflected on the lessons that might be learned from that period.
  1. I have tried to draw from those reflections some practical advice and suggestions to teachers, policymakers and school leaders. I would not presume to have all of the answers and certainly do not claim to have got everything right. Nevertheless, I hope that this book might be useful for future generations working in education and those who are deciding on future policy
  2. I have taken a look into the future, which highlights what needs to be done in order to build on the many strengths and successes of the education system that we are lucky enough to have in Britain. Whatever the challenges and wrong turns might have been I remain deeply optimistic about the future.

I hope that the  book will be of interest not only to those who were previously or are currently involved in the world of education but also to those who might shape future policy and practice.

Lessons Learned – A Life in Education can be ordered directly from the publisher John Catt  or through Amazon

National Careers Week

This is a link to a blog I have written for National Careers Week (5th-9th March). A tremendous initiative that comes directly from professionals to help schools and colleges provide the highest quality of careers education and guidance.

An open letter to the Chief Inspector

Dear Chief Inspector,

Thank you for giving public recognition to the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum in your recent speeches and reports. You are absolutely right to be saying that the curriculum is about so much more than examinations and expressing concern about the fact that important subjects like the arts and technology have been squeezed as a result of government policies such as the E Bacc.

I do nevertheless experience some mixed emotions when reading about this welcome change of direction in Ofsted. After all people like me and those I represented warned about this ever since Michael Gove announced the E Bacc and the accompanying reforms to qualifications which you were instrumental in implementing in your role of Chair of Ofqual. It was not that anyone denied the importance of the subjects included in the EBacc or the fact that all schools should offer them. Our concerns were about the impact on the rest of the curriculum.

When the National Curriculum was amended to its current form Michael Gove was clear and quite explicit with me and others that the Key Stage 4 curriculum was effectively GCSE. The deregulation of broader aspects of the curriculum added to the impact of  this.   Ofsted has focused sharply on data and there has been a strong correlation between examination outcomes and Ofsted grades. Your recent commitment to look beyond those and recognise their place as an important part of the picture but no more is welcome and I have been pleased to see this approach reflected in some recent inspections of schools with high levels of disadvantage which I have been supporting.

Nevertheless I urge you to avoid yet another extension of the culture of denigration that has pervaded our education system for too long. It is not the fault of schools that they are teaching in the way you criticise. The current Secretary of State appears to have recognised that fact and seems to be trying to change the discourse.

Those of us who spoke out in defence of a broad and balanced curriculum were ignored. Though their arguments were strongly supported by many highly experienced and knowledgeable educationalists as well as then Director General of the CBI who argued for a curriculum that enabled young people to be ‘grounded and rounded’ they were accused of being enemies of promise or labelled as the ‘blob’.  In fact the last thing they were doing was undermining the importance of a strong academic basis to the curriculum. Since then the discourse around the curriculum has remained highly polarised. An unhelpful distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ’skills’ implies that one school of thought is in support of one but not the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such distinctions are both unhelpful and damaging.

During the ensuing years examinations have been at the heart of a high stakes accountability system. School leaders have lost their jobs on the back of one set of results and continue to do so. School teachers’ pay is determined on the basis of performance which is more often than not judged against examination results. Performance tables are big news in the summer and affect school choice. Meanwhile schools are doing everything they can to prepare their students for examinations that are far more difficult that the ones that preceded them. At the same time they are trying, often in spite of policy  levers, to do everything they can to address really important broader aspects of education.

In order to achieve your worthy aims I would urge you to consider the following.

First, please do not perpetuate yet more denigration by publicly criticising teachers who, in order to do what government policy has told them to they are focusing their teaching sharply on preparation for examinations. I do not know of any driving instructor who fail to teach people how to perform in that test. Why wouldn’t they? I am fearful that another ‘Ofsted myth’ is about to be created – eg. plan your lessons in a particular way when inspectors are in don’t mention markschemes or be seen to be teaching to the test.

Instead please keep demonstrating through your inspections what is valued and please advise policymakers to emphasise this.  Perhaps it is time for the inspectorate to draw on the vast wealth of evidence it has gathered over many years and present this to a department that has recently made an explicit commitment to using evidence more effectively.

Second, please look very carefully during your curriculum review about the impact of the current focus on linear exams. We need to gather evidence about the impact of this policy as it continues to be implemented.  The absence of any form of continuous assessment that counts towards them due to a lack of trust in a profession that has been driven by external accountability can only add to the pressure to teach to the test. Plenty of other jurisdictions combine their forms of assessment.

Third, please engage as much as you can with government to broaden the criteria according to which they judge schools and the way in which it is done. The respective and sometime contradictory roles of RSCs and inspectors will need to be part of that conversation.

I wish you well. There has never been a time when our country has had a greater need to equip all of our young people with a broad and balanced education. I can assure you that those people like me who are working with large numbers of schools are absolutely committed to helping them to achieve that. We all want the same thing. The best possible outcomes for our young people.

With all good wishes,

Brian Lightman  (Former General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and now a freelance education leadership consultant working with numerous schools)


Some thoughts about ‘GCSE myths’

As someone who was a Head of Department when GCSE was first introduced I was really interested to read Cath Jadhav’s recent ‘mythbusting  blog’. Because the blog led me to question my own memories of that exciting period I decided to do some research.

The first ‘myth’ the blog deals with is “GCSEs used to be criterion referenced.”

We could argue about semantics but I am not sure that calling this a myth is entirely accurate. I fully understand what Ofqual says in that requiring every candidate to fully meet every single grade criterion would be setting the bar very high indeed.  Although an element of professional judgement is required this is what a BBC report from that time stated:

Under the old O Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate’s performance relatively against those of competing candidates.

The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.

The then Secretary of State Sir Keith Joseph is quoted in the same article as saying:

“It (GCSE) will be more intelligible to users………also more intelligible and therefore more useful for employers.

When GCSEs were first introduced this represented a massive step change for teachers. For the first time we had explicit descriptions of the knowledge and skills we needed to teach. We knew that, if they could demonstrate their mastery of these in accordance with the grade criteria that they would be awarded that grade.


So whilst I broadly agree with the argument in the blog that GCSE’s are a ‘best fit’ qualification and that they are not fully criterion referenced this feels a long way away from what we currently have. I doubt whether Sir Keith’s comment about employers and users would apply to the new GCSEs. I also worry about the apparent disconnect described in the Ofqual blog between the grade descriptors and grades awarded. Doesn’t that call into question their value and indeed the claim that these new GCSEs are more rigorous that previous ones?

The second myth is “My school can’t improve because of Ofqual’s approach.”

Well of course schools can improve. Judging by the classroom practice I am seeing in the schools I visit I suspect that many are doing so much more than any published results show. However, I am not sure that this is actually the ‘myth’ in existence.  What I do know concerns people is that the system as a whole cannot be seen to improve if broadly the same proportion of students are achieving each grade each year due to the statistical process known as ‘comparable outcomes’. I accept that awarding bodies can make a case for varying their results but as Ofsted has recently stated ‘none of us yet know what a new grade will look like in terms of pupils’ work’. In the 1980s and 90s we certainly did know and could therefore prepare students confidently for these examinations. That confidence has been seriously undermined at the moment giving teachers immense cause for concern.

The third myth “There is a cap on the number of students that can be awarded each grade.”is therefore not all that far from the truth. True there is some flexibility in that cap but it is a fairly strong guide. The proportion of grades is based on the prior attainment of the cohort but the problem with this is that nobody knows whether those Key Stage Two assessments will be reliable predictors of performance especially as they change from year to year. Will assessments in English and Maths tell us reliably how well we can expect a student to perform five years later in History or Modern Languages? And what will carry more weight – the grade descriptors or the prior attainment matrix? How will be compare two candidates for a job who attained the same grades in different yers?

As I said in a previous blog I fear that GCSE is currently a very sick patient.  There is a pressing need for some honest communication with the public about what these examinations do and do not mean. If we are to have trusted and meaningful qualifications for 16 year olds surely we need to know what each grade means in terms of pupils’ learning?

I am pleased that Ofqual is inviting discussion about these issues. It has an incredibly difficult job to do working within the constraints of government policies which is did not design.  What we now need is an informed and professional debate about the best way forward for the young people we serve.