What is the single most revealing thing about any school?

A great question from a brilliant website: what’s the single most revealing thing about any person?

Many of the answers posted on Quora, and discussed in this podcast are as enlightening as you would hope.  ‘A man is known by the company he avoids’ says one contributor, while another suggests that observing how someone treats people that they don’t necessarily need to be nice to is the most revealing sign of character.  In the podcast above, our host suggests tracking how people spend their every dollar; his co-host would rather track someone’s every minute.  I recently saw someone drop a tray of pints in a crowded pub – the angry finger-pointing that followed told me all I needed to know about them.  Apparently Maya Angelou’s acid test involved noting how people responded to a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Perhaps the same question could lead to a better understanding of our schools?

So what might be the single most revealing thing about any school?  The link between the responses above is that all of the indicators are things that are not usually tracked or measured.  We know that we need to be polite to our would-be boss at an interview, but how do we treat the receptionist who took our coat on arrival?  Similarly, in our schools, there are plenty of indicators that schools know will be measured, but perhaps there are a few tell-tale signs of school performance that we currently neglect.

Here’s my starter for twelve:

  1. How do students treat supply teachers?  What happens to the work produced in these lessons?
  2. Is the maths department fully staffed?
  3. What is the rate of staff turnover?
  4. What happens in tutor time?
  5. What training do middle leaders receive before taking on their roles?
  6. What were the results of Y11 students at each decile last year?  (We’re familiar with threshold figures but we can sometimes lose track of the qualifications that students actually walk away with.  I would like to see the actual outcomes of ten students throughout the attainment range [one at each decile] and compare these with students at other schools).
  7. What percentage of students achieved more than 5 A/A* grades last year?
  8. How do students treat lunchtime supervisors?
  9. What happens when students don’t complete their homework?  How do you know?
  10. How do you identify and support students who are not yet proficient in reading and writing?
  11. Can you show me the best work students have produced in Y8 History this year? (choose any subject, any year)
  12. What exactly is agreed in the ‘home-school agreement’?

We know that performance measures nudge schools to focus on certain things (see my previous blogs on Y11 intervention e.g. HERE and HERE) often at the expense of other equally important things.  Perhaps we could understand our schools better by shining a light on some of these hidden indicators.

UPDATE: How did I forget the state of the students’ toilets?  Thanks John Rentoul for the reminder.  The proportion of lessons taught by supply teachers would also be interesting.


What if Ofsted only inspected one year group?

Imagine if Ofsted arrived at your school one morning, but instead of attempting to inspect the whole school, they just focused on one year group.  The school would not know which year group would be inspected until the day of the visit.  The school would be judged on the quality of education being delivered to that year group.

Such an approach might help tackle one of the biggest issues we face in our education system today, which is the disproportionate amount of resources directed towards Year 11, and other year groups facing public exams.  It’s no secret that these terminal year groups, particularly Year 11, absorb so much of our schools’ energy, and it’s no surprise either, given that our accountability framework rests on the outcomes of these year groups, rather than the quality of the educational journey that students receive throughout their time at the school.

We have come to accept the fact that Year 11 will be allocated the best teachers, the sharpest scrutiny and the lion’s share of after-school booster classes, alongside an austerity-resistant supply of revision breakfasts and boot camps.

But just as our obsession with Year 11 is no mystery, it’s also completely bonkers.  Imagine if the resources we throw at Year 11 intervention were directed instead towards students in Year 7.  We could systematically support students with low levels of literacy, unlocking the curriculum for these students for their remaining 5 years.  We could do the same with pupils with poor mathematical skills, and school leaders could identify and patch-up other gaps in students’ understanding, much the same as question-level analysis is used to fine-tune exam preparation for students in Year 11.  The gains made by this approach would serve the students and the school for years to come.

If Ofsted focused on just one year group, and if schools had no clue which year group it would be, schools would ensure that their most established teachers and heads of year were distributed evenly throughout the years.  Schools would ensure that their booster classes were open to all cohorts, and that concerns about poor progress were identified and acted upon in every year group, not just Year 11.

Ofsted would benefit too.   By focusing on just one cohort, the inspectors would be better placed to understand the educational experience that students receive.  Inspectors could become specialists in one year group, enabling them to compare the standards achieved by Year 8 students at one school with another.  In one day, two inspectors focusing on one year group could explore the school at a depth beyond the reach of an inspection team grappling with 5 cohorts or more.

The strongest objection I can think of to this approach is that schools might perceive Ofsted judgements to be invalid if they are based on the experience of just 20% of the student body.  One way to solve this would be for the school to provide its own assessment of the quality of education received by each cohort.  So on the day prior to the inspection, the headteacher would provide contextual information, with evidence, on each year group.

One half of our accountability framework – performance tables – will always focus on those year groups facing exams.  Perhaps the other half of our accountability framework – Ofsted – could turn its gaze towards other year groups.