What if there was no outstanding?

The cynics are right nine times out of ten.

H.L. Mencken

Does the outstanding grade retard innovation or drive us towards excellence?

This is just a flight of fancy; a thought experiment. What would happen if we did away with the outstanding grade for schools? What if ‘good’ was good enough? What would be different?

Let’s remember that Ofsted have acknowledged that there is no such thing as an outstanding lesson, but all schools are still judged on a four point scale with ‘outstanding’ being the highest accolade a school can receive. Imagine this bauble was taken away. What then?

I had this discussion with Joe Kirby yesterday morning and we came at this from two quite different angles. Joe is, I think, inherently an optimist and an idealist. He’s accomplished an amazing amount in short space of time and has exacting standards of excellence in all he does. He argued that it’s potentially damaging for good schools to obsess on what Ofsted will judge as outstanding. Much better that they get on with the business of innovating and improving outcomes for all the children they teach without fear or favour.

Being by nature somewhat cynical, I took the position of devil’s advocate. Where would be the incentive for schools to excel if they could only be recognised as being good? If good was good enough, would schools be content with that? Yes, there’s still the incentive of league tables, but haven’t they resulted in schools chasing a succession of perverse incentives resulting in kids being pressured into taking unsuitable qualifications that failed to enable them to get on their preferred college courses and balking at anything that smacked of being academic, or even a bit hard? Doesn’t this result in teaching feeling under pressure to massage internal assessments and exam boards to tout their specification as easier to get a C in than the competition? Without an outstanding grade, what is there to strive for?

I’m sure I’ve not done Joe’s position justice and have perhaps made my counter-argument a bit over emotionally, but I think, deep down, that majority of people are motivated by self-interest. Yes of course there are saints and martyrs: people who look down the generations to see the impact of their legacies, but most of us are somewhat more quotidian in our drivers.

My contention is that we are driven by the need for recognition, the need for acceptance, and the urge to protect ourselves from harm. These motivations are unbidden. We may not be conscious of them but they are usually at the heart of what makes us tick if you dig deeply enough. These are not attractive qualities and we often hide the roots of our desire from ourselves as much as from others, but they’re there. Whether they’re in the driving seat depends on how honest we are with ourselves.

Maybe I’m wrong, but if I’m not might this mean that without the recognition of being ‘outstanding’ we will revert to risk aversion and not stick our heads over the parapets? Maybe you’re an inspirational leader who does the right thing because you’re driven by some higher purpose. But can we build a system that relies on this instinct? I worry not. The point is, we all ‘require improvement’ because we can all be better. Maybe the outstanding grade could be a mechanism for ensuring this requirement?

It would perhaps be far more interesting to ask schools to define outstanding for themselves with the role of an inspectorate to validate these aspirations. But more on that tomorrow…

In the meantime, please add your own thoughts on the impact of ‘outstanding’ below.

Related posts

The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons
A tale of two lessons: further thoughts on the Cult of Outstanding
An inconvenient truth? A surplus model of school improvement 

30 Responses to What if there was no outstanding?

  1. […] via What if there was no outstanding? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  2. Michael Tidd says:

    The cynic in me says that the very existence of the “Outstanding” grade with its narrow parameters is one of the main things that stops good schools from innovating.

    • David Didau says:

      You are not alone. I’d like each school to define their own outstanding grade.

      • Sylvia Thomas says:

        We are working on our own ideas against the Teachers’ Standards or minimum expectations at Granville

        • David Didau says:

          Interesting. I have some real issue with Teachers’ Standards – they don’t tend to align with most teachers’ values for a start

          • Sylvia Thomas says:

            Which is why we are debating this very issue at a school level to find out what we want teachers to be like in our school. Which values don’t you think they align with?

          • David Didau says:

            Ask your teachers why they teach – then try to map that against the Standards

          • Sylvia Thomas says:

            I was interested in your response suggesting I ask teachers why they teach. As I still teach myself and remain very much in touch with the classroom I would like to think that my motivations have remained the same – the desire to see others make progress and grow as individuals (just as I was given the chance to do). I am intrigued to know whether you think there should be a set of “standards” at all. I certainly have come into contact with plenty of staff who I would not want teaching my family and equally plenty of others whose professionalism and skills I have admired. For me as a headteacher it is about making sure that everyone of my pupils has the best chance to make progress in our school. Do we therefore not need to ensure this by judging staff in a fair and equitable way and therefore we need some measure to do this?

          • David Didau says:

            There’s 2 strands there: motivation vs accountability – might be good to tease them out.

            I made the comment about asking why staff teach because whenever I’ve done that teachers tend to come out with stuff which rarely appears in the standards. It’s worthwhile to collect values to see if this can underpin school values.

            You could then try to make your own standards based on these which could be used in appraisal. Just a thought.

          • Sylvia Thomas says:

            Interesting thought – having a debate tomorrow night about this very subject – I will keep you posted with the various responses I get

          • Sylvia Thomas says:

            As promised we had a lengthy discussion at the HoF Professional Learning session last night where unanimously it was agreed that trying to conflate the “why” of teaching with the “standards” that we are aspiring to achieve and maintain is not appropriate. We discussed that we would not want to be operated upon by somone who did not meet the standards appropriate for a surgeon, or represented by a legal team who were not up to the job. Therefore, no-one had a problem per se with the Teachers’ Standards because at least there is something that is a standard. What we did agree, however, was that we need all staff here to understand exactly how these are interpreted here for consistencies sake. A very difficult task but we felt was underpinned by clear policies and shared protocols which everyone has had the opportunity to debate.

          • David Didau says:

            Sounds like a productive discussion. But I hope you don’t think of was suggesting conflating why with the standards was in any way desirable? I was pointing out that the two were very distinct. The Standards are imposed externally and while we may (or may not?) agree that they are necessary of desirable they are the ‘stick’ of teaching. The ‘carrot’ are those things which got us into the profession and keep us going. What we believe are the essential qualities of a great teacher are often not aligned with what the DfE are holding us to account with.

          • Sylvia Thomas says:

            The positive aspect of the discussion was that because of the culture we have developed at our school the Teachers’ Standards are not seen as a stick at all. This is because everybody understands that we all need to be working at a standard and that at least there is a set of standards that we have all discussed at length and all understand in our context. What keeps us in teaching is doing the best for the children we have in our community. We are agreed here that the Teachers’ Standards do actually reflect great teaching – we don’t see a disconnect here at all. The best teachers are those who stimulate curiosity within a safe envionment; those who understand how to build a positive classroom ethos; and those adapt teaching to the various needs of the individuals we teach (just ot pick out a few of the areas in the TS). I would be interested to see a set of standards that encapsulate the values we discussed last night without any mention of the practicalities of the role. Enjoying the debate anyway as did the team last night

      • Sean Delahoy says:

        I like this, would you do it for all gradings? The idea of creating our own criteria with what we think is important, in order to measure our own improvement and excellence sounds exciting. Surely that is better than being judged by stuff that has been labelled for us.

  3. I agree with Michael. It is also all that comes with being rated as ‘outstanding’ (positive), and all that doesn’t arrive if outstanding isn’t achieved, that causes problems. I agree, that many people are driven by personal ambition, but if you design the system such that there is no reward for compromising all around you to achieve ‘outstanding’ then the ambitious will go elsewhere (consultancy? This is probably where they end up eventually anyway – this probably makes me more cynical than you!). So, ensure that an effective school is rated ‘effective’ and everyone is pleased, and that a partially effective school is given an accurate diagnosis and the tools to improve. Shift the actual focus back onto improving the education of the children, rather than on pleasing Ofsted…….

  4. Whilst I’d agree that everyone is ultimately motivated by self-interest, I don’t *want* to believe that we’d all just settle for mediocrity or being labelled as ‘good’, whatever that might mean. The classic argument against a socialist society is similar: who’d want to study for seven years to be a doctor when the pay’s the same as the bin man? I think, and hope, that there are always people who want to drive progress and innovate, but I think you’re probably right in suggesting that to systemise this would be difficult, if not impossible.

    However, that doesn’t mean that the conversation isn’t worth having. How do we create cultures of success, pride and drive? I’d like to put forward – and I’m thinking aloud here – that knowledge can do this if there are enough self-motivated leaders in place.

    An example: even though my tutor group have a dedicated ‘Topical Tuesday’ we discuss news and current affairs every day. Many great tutors do this every day. For discussion to be successful, and to create an environment where all students (we have a key stage vertical system) feel comfortable in engaging in debate, I have had to really push an emphasis on knowledge of the world around them. When I started only a few joined in, partly because I was new and they didn’t yet trust me and because they were being made to think at 8:45, but also partly because so many were deprived of a culture of knowledge and engagement in current affairs. I have had to drive this and I expect that when I’m away the system falls apart a little, but I know that my tutees are capable of so much more than the occasional behaviour-related email comes through.

    That knowledge, I think, drives confidence. It’s why, I’d contend, that so many of my tutees engage in extra-curricular activities and achieve academic success and praise, and this breeds more of the same.

    But do we need a label? Yeah, sure: when I’ve been deemed to be outstanding I’ve been delighted. But over the last year, as I’ve engaged further in educational debates, I’ve come to recognise how much the knowledge I’ve gained has driven me to succeed further. I no longer need to be labelled, although I do want my hard work acknowledged.

    And you know what? The more knowledge I gain, and the more I try to pass it off to others in debate and discussion, whether as CPD or a break time chat, the more I realise that most people do want to improve and be successful. They just need that inspirational leader, whether driven by a higher purpose or not.

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right: we need inspirational leaders. Can that be systematised do you think?

      • My gut reaction is no, at least on a national scale.

        It goes back to my comment about responsibility, not accountability. I suppose I’d like schools to be assessed (or judged, if you must) on their own terms: ‘This is what we do, this is why we do it, this is where we’re going, this is how we’re doing: what do you think?’

        That doesn’t necessarily mean we have no basic set of standards, but instead that we as professionals who know our students plan a path which best suits them.

        I haven’t got an issue with systems at all. And, frankly, I’ve not felt constrained by the curriculum or tick-box expectations, though I have had these made clear to me.

        However, a system is only as useful as it’s purpose. If it’s meant to judge then judge it will. I’d like inspections and observations etc. to be geared towards learning from the practice of others so that we continue to develop and, where appropriate, innovate.

      • I think this is the point that is missed over and over again. Outstanding leadership is what makes the biggest difference to educational excellence. I saw it again and again when I was supply teaching in London. If there was a good principal you had a good school. If you had effective leadership at the top then typically you found great team leaders and a motivated staff.
        How do you duplicated that from school to school? Well there in lies the question is in not? Leadership can be taught but not everyone has the ability to take those lessons and make them work.
        Personally I believe more effort should be spent defining best leadership practices rather than bashing the troops on the front lines. But then what do I know? I’m one of the troops. 🙂

        • Absolutely right. SLT make the biggest difference because they set the context for teaching. I think the new accountability structure should focus on school leadership and not on teachers.

  5. Sylvia Thomas says:

    We have had interesting reactions to us removing grading from lesson observations. Some colleagues have been desparate for a label and others have welcomed the opportunity to focus on the formative feedback only. I have always maintained that the label “requires improvement” is unforunate to say the least, because in my world we all require improvement and are never the finished article.

  6. As a fellow optimist, I don’t believe we need any grade to motivate us. Good teachers are learners and improvers. Good managers and management help teachers carry on improving by providing timely feedback. I believe the feedback flowchart you posted last week is applicable to teachers too! Teachers should be doing DIRT etc on their own practice.

  7. For most of my career I was free from external judgment. I had one HMI drop in and authority advisers came around, but at no time was any formal assessment offered — it was, ‘OK, you seem to be doing the right things. Carry on.’ That seemed enough, because the real feedback was internal, from heads, colleagues, children, sometimes from parents. And I do think we are pretty good at judging how well we are doing. ‘This, above all things. To thine own self be true.’

  8. Concerned says:

    Just a thought, OFSTED came into being in 1992. Since 1992 standards have been dropping, our PISA ranking has been dropping, many students leave school functionally innumerate and/or illiterate. So clearly, the bringing in of OFSTED’s grading system has caused massive problems already, it needs to be removed before it does any more damage.

  9. It’s not often that I completely disagree with you (and when I disagree I’m always slightly worried) but I’ll break a rule! You ask, “Where would be the incentive for schools to excel if they could only be recognised as being good?” Even as Devil’s Advocate, I wonder if that pushes cynicism a little far. The incentive, surely, is to serve their students better. I don’t go to work to be graded outstanding, nor for my school to get the same – depending on the focus or the application, this acts either as disincentive or distraction.

    I agree with Michael and CP above – a misguided focus on outstanding is holding schools back. Perhaps two grades – satisfactory and improving and unsatisfactory (or not improving), would be sufficient. Like Joe and Will, I’m an optimist and an idealist. A handful of teachers and leaders don’t want to be better (as often as not as a consequence of the system they are in) – and that requires action. For everyone else, the job we have and the impact it has is enough incentive to get better!

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right Harry: teachers don’t go to work to be graded at all. But I’m not talking about people, I’m talking about institutions. But I’m probably just feeling a little jejune.

  10. […] I spent yesterday musing on whether the outstanding grade is a force for good or evil, asking What if there was no outstanding? The jury’s still out. But the real question is why should an inspectorate dictate what […]

  11. […] I have been re-reading a post by David Didau called ‘What if there was no outstanding?” […]

  12. Nick Hitchen says:

    Worth noting that ISI inspections don’t give a headline judgement.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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