The former QCA chief Mick Waters is a fascinating commentator on education. I’ve already commented upon his new book Thinking Allowed On Schooling; it’s a really interesting read. What I like about Mick is that he is very approachable, and combines a healthy realism about schools with a desire for a more egalitarian system. He’s obviously a keen supporter of local state schools which offer a broad and balanced curriculum to all children, and clearly believes that state schools have improved immensely in recent years. However, he is suspicious of a system which produces too many perverse incentives. I interviewed him this week at the Royal Society of Arts, the RSA, and was particularly struck by the comments he made about Ofsted. Having been a head-honcho bureaucrat himself, he’s got an uncanny knack of nailing the ways in which bureaucracies promote themselves and their agendas. I think his observations about Ofsted are incisive; he sees quite clearly how Ofsted has generated a language which primarily protects itself as an institution rather than genuinely assisting school improvement. Watch him talking to me here on how Ofsted invented the category of “outstanding” in order to deflect criticism of its dubious inspection methods.
Waters’ case is a strong one; the category of “outstanding” conferred great power upon Ofsted because it enabled it to make a substantial number of schools to feel very good about themselves, while encouraging other schools to aspire to this category. What it didn’t do was genuinely assist with raising standards because as Waters argues in his book, and speaks about below, many of the judgments of Ofsted are based upon dubious data. RaiseOnline, the organisation which crunches exam data for schools and for Ofsted, base their data upon exam results which many people — from the current Education Secretary to Mike Tomlinson, a former Ofsted chief — question both the validity and reliability of. But least you think Waters is overwhelmingly negative about Ofsted and doesn’t believe in it as a concept, you need to listen to a fuller explanation of his ideas here:
For Waters, the root of the problem for schools is an affliction which affects many public services at the current time, and this is the way in which an excessive focus upon specific targets distort the practices within institutions. He cleverly uses “game theory” to explain this phenomena. It’s worth listening to him explaining this concept in his own words here:
What happened is that various institutions in education have played the game but forgotten the original purpose of the game in the first place. A few years ago, Ofsted was worried about its very survival because it was being attacked from all sides for the unreliability and unfairness of its inspection processes; its invention of the outstanding category introduced a new game into the system, the game of everyone wanting to attain “outstanding” status. Its grading category for lessons from 1 (outstanding) to 4 (unsatisfactory) fundamentally altered teachers’ lives in schools because suddenly a number was defining many teachers’ sense of self-worth and professional pride. Teachers stopped complaining about Ofsted in the vociferous way that they had been, and worried about whether they were a 1 or not. As a result, Ofsted, with the introduction of the category, altered the rules of the game for every state school teachers’ professional life. A clever move, and not one I’d really noticed until Mick Waters pointed it out to me.
Education expert and former QCA chief, Mick Waters, has just published a new book on schools called “Thinking Allowed on Schooling”. He spoke at the House of Commons yesterday about his book, giving a blistering talk about how schools policy is heading in the wrong direction at the moment. He argued passionately for a more evidence-based approach, talking eloquently about the need for “an education spring” which he characterised as “a rising of intolerance about the way schooling is being manipulated in a piecemeal and uncoordinated way to serve too many purposes with unclear measures”. He called for a National Council for Schooling to be set up which is built upon evidence and research and has clearly defined aims for our young people. Above all, he called for a better definition of what a “rounded education” really is and clarity about where schooling fits into that picture. His comments about exams and GCSEs are particularly potent; he has already written in a previous book about how he feels the exam system has become corrupted and has led to schools “playing the game” of getting good results, rather than thinking about what is a good education for our students.
His speech and summing up of the comments made (not on the video here) really make his case very powerfully I think. He is a friendly person who is obviously utterly sincere about what he says. I’m not sure that I agree with all of his ideas such as the “licensing of teachers” — an idea mooted by Ed Balls when he was Education Secretary — but they are always worth thinking about in depth. There’s a really good Guardian article on him here.
One of the most striking things about my visit to Gallions Primary school in Newham, which I’ve already written about here, was the ways in which the school nurtured a love of dancing, singing and cooking amongst the boys. This for me is a very important issue; we live in a culture which promotes very strong gender stereotypes in a multiplicity of ways. Many boys quickly fall into stereotypical behaviour, attitudes and mind-sets, learning from our culture that contentious issues are settled by violence, that the “arts” and reading are for “girls” and so on. Michael Gove pilloried academics who study these sorts of gender stereotypes in a recent Daily Mail article, mocking an academic who studies “‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice”. I’m not quite sure who this academic is (Gove, of course, doesn’t provide a proper reference) but I know an amazing academic, Dr. Carrie Paechter at Goldsmiths College, who does precisely this. Her book, Being Boys, Being Girls, really opened my eyes up to the ways in which so much of the behaviour of boys is socially constructed. Paechter shows that schools play a big role in constructing these gender stereotypes in both overt and covert fashions, from the ways in which they insist upon different types of uniform for the sexes, to the messages teachers send in and out of the classroom. Her book is subtle and open-minded, refusing to pin down gendered behaviour to one particular source, but rather showing that gendered behaviour emerges from “communities of practice”, that is to say, emerge from a complex network of collective behaviour within the communities that children grow up in, which includes the home, school, and the wider culture. She shows that schools can’t challenge these stereotypes by having “bolt-on” lessons about gender stereotypes, but need to consider their overall aims and purposes. One such school that has done this is Gallions which clearly has a passionate concern for gender equality; making boys dance, sing and cook from Day 1 is one of these. A knock-on effect of this approach is that they’ve managed to change cultural attitudes towards gender stereotypes in their very deprived area; the “arts” and reading are not the province of “girls”, they are for boys too. They’ve managed to combat much gender stereotyping that you find on the media, which can be very influential, but inducting children into new “communities of practice”, to use Paechter’s phrase. In the video, the headteacher Paul Jackson, explains how they’ve managed to do this.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, spoke at the Education Innovation conference today. In reply to various questions about the importance of teacher training and whether sabbaticals for teachers were a good idea, he responded by saying that they “must be”. I found this commitment to teacher training and supporting teachers very encouraging. He clearly realises that it’s only when teachers are supported to become better at their jobs that standards in the classroom will rise.
He quoted Professor Dylan William’s research which shows that the variations in teaching quality within schools is often wider than the variation between schools. I think he clearly hints very strongly that he will make teacher sabbaticals part of policy.
Watch his response to questions about this area after his main speech and judge for yourself.
Picking up on Janet Down’s previous post on Andreas Schleicher arguing for collaboration between schools, it’s good to note that the Shadow Education Secretary is now realising the importance of collaboration too. His speech at the Education Innovation conference today was impressive; well-researched, thoughtful, and persuasive. I thought he came across very well; someone who genuinely is interested in listening to the voices of teachers and pupils. I thought he was honest particularly in his concession that the Labour Party doesn’t have a good track record in delivering high quality ICT and vocational training, something he clearly sees as paramount issues. I would agree with him there.
Watch it for yourself here: