Protecting the Failing: At What Cost for our Future?

Posted on February 8, 2012


The latest issue of the Sunday Times carried the following headline: ‘School Chief: 5,000 Heads are no good’. The recently appointed Chief Inspector of Ofsted, the regulatory body charged with school performance, had been interviewed. Sir Michael Wilshaw had been Headmaster of an institution fêted as an exemplary Academy-status school. The Mossbourne School is in a relatively deprived part of Hackney yet consistently performs well, with many pupils attaining good examination grades.

Ofsted currently rates schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. The category ‘satisfactory’ stands one above ‘inadequate’ in the rating, and Sir Michael has decided to replace it with ‘requires improvement’. Only schools poor enough to be categorised ‘inadequate’ are deemed to be failing and formally required to make improvements. Schools rated as ‘satisfactory’ are encouraged rather than required to seek improvement. Heads of such schools are not reprimanded, or at risk of losing their jobs, if, after the usual five or six years between inspections, their institutions have failed to improve. Sir Michael quite rightly describes these schools as ‘coasting’.

The Chief Inspector is clearly not satisfied with the status quo. His comments cited in the Sunday Times leave no doubt as to his attribution of blame: ‘Everything flows from leadership’. He argues that the vast majority of schools consistently rated ‘satisfactory’ are not only failing pupils but also undermining the morale of teaching staff. This is because Heads lack sufficient ambition to tackle poor teachers, which in turn leads to a culture of underachievement. He suggests that some Heads seek to excuse rather than tackle bad educational performance:

If we are going to improve standards in this country, we have got to create leadership that does not offer excuses for poor performance. That is too often the case, I am absolutely clear about that. A whole range of issues are trotted out: it is ethnicity or it is poverty or it is background or it is years of poor performance in a particular city or region. We have heard them all before. We won’t move forward if we don’t have a no-excuses culture. We haven’t got it at the moment, we must develop it.

Sir Michael certainly has a valid point to make. For many years such excuses have been regularly offered for inadequate schools in particular areas. The prevailing socio-economic circumstances of Hull or Hackney are often presented as reasons for pupils leaving formal education with little in the way of educational basics. In the case of Hackney some have argued bizarrely that the local ethnic mix has an added harmful effect.

Sir Michael does, however, neglect one important factor in his analysis, perhaps because it is politically unmentionable at present: dysfunctional family background. This, whilst not excusing schools for their poor educational achievements, does have a noticeable impact on children’s performances. Marital breakdowns and absentee parents – most often fathers – do not make for stable platforms upon which children can perform at school.

Educational reforms and direct government action can have only limited impacts upon these problems. There have, of course, always been families lacking stability, but not to the degree prevalent today. The Centre for Social Justice has published proposals to counter current trends, and it is refreshing to find someone prominent in government who recognises that there is no ‘quick fix’ to be found in hurriedly drafted policies emerging from within the arbitrarily drawn boundaries of any one department of State.

There are poor schools in deprived and affluent areas alike. A culture of mediocrity pervades many institutions. Other schools are so obsessed with exam grades and national rankings that their pupils do not receive a balanced formation. ‘Character’ is all-too-often neglected. A school’s culture plays a vital part in creating its ‘standards’.

It is not difficult to find reasons to criticise the rôle that trades unions play in education. Some of them seem actually to prefer that current deficient standards be maintained. One teaching union has responded to the Chief Inspector’s strictures as follows: ‘First we had “underperforming” schools, now we have “coasting” schools. Labelling schools in this way is derogatory and insulting to pupils, teachers, school leaders and governors.’ The unions do have a right and proper role to perform, but it is, to say the least, unfortunate that some choose to defend a status quo that actually undermines the status and morale of the teaching profession.

Higher standards in education will not be attained simply by changing Ofsted’s category of ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’, but it is nonetheless a welcome step. The unions that seek to protect a failing status quo should take time out to reflect upon the long-term individual and societal costs of not taking action now.