Time for more tables

One of the things that recent events bring into sharp relief is how the system deals with schools that have been in difficulties for some time.

Rarely does a school change from (and I make no apologies for using the Ofsted designations – that’s the system we work within) Outstanding to Inadequate overnight. Where they do it is usually because of some specific issue relating to safeguarding. These schools are not the focus of this post.

The schools I’m talking about are those that have drifted downwards over a number of years, or those that have hovered back and forth between Good and Requires Improvement. These are schools with, usually, multiple issues to deal with. Local social and economic conditions. Teacher retention and recruitment. Underfunding. Low expectations (from multiple stakeholders). All these things conspire in particular communities to create an environment of long acceptance of underperformance, both within the community and more dangerously in the wider system.

There are no simple answers to these issues. The only thing I know for sure here is that to heap the responsibility for change on the shoulders of the schools alone is the wrong approach. It will inevitably fail. Schools can’t create jobs. Schools can’t create better living conditions or better transport infrastructure. Schools can create better educated students but that more often than not just creates a brain drain and makes the local area worse.

So I have no simple answers. But I have a suggestion. But I don’t think you’ll like it. For a couple of reasons.

The first is this. It relies on Ofsted.

Cards on the table. I think that without Ofsted we would have a much worse education system than exists currently. Look, they’re not perfect, not by a long chalk, but who of us is? Unfortunately the last HMCI was a disaster for the organisation and I believe his mistakes colour peoples opinion of the organisation. It is always possible at the margins to criticise their reports, but the generality of those I have read about schools I know have been fairly accurate. At the report level, about the quality of education in a school, they get it right much, much more often than they get it wrong.

For me the problem here is transparency. Ofsted hold an immense amount of data but most of it is hidden, and that which is in the public domain is badly presented. I have no intention of arguing that more should be made public (though there is a case to be made for that), but I do want to make the case that the data that is in the public domain should be better presented.

This is the second reason you won’t like this – it sounds a lot like league tables and to some it will smack of what they call “school shaming”. To this I would say two things:

Firstly, I know league tables have a bad name in education, but once data is produced there is an inevitability to their being produced. I’d say the mistake the DfES/DCSF/DfE made with league tables is that rather than maintaining control of their production they allowed others to do it for them. If at the start they had been produced showing quartiles or quintiles rather than ranked then they would perhaps have been better understood and less reviled.

Secondly, and this is where I might really need my tin hat, if a school has been sat as requires improvement for several years perhaps we need to do more than just tut and move on. Perhaps if this we more visible then there would be more pressure to improve. This pressure is not necessarily on the school but on those responsible for it, be they a Local Authority or a Multi-Academy Trust.

So, I’m sorry to get so “functional” about it, but we need more accessible, tabular data from Ofsted. We need to see time series, what the Ofsted reports have said over time. We need to be able to easily see aggregations of data by LA or by MAT. By a variety of socio-economic factors. I should be able to go to a website, click and easily create a list of the worst performing MATs, LAs or regions. In particular we should be able to see where this has been the case for a number of years. This data is available, it is public, but currently it is hidden in plain sight. Transparency is not just about the publication of data but is as much about the accessibility of the data when it is published. At the moment people have to work too hard to understand the information the data is providing. This need no longer be the case.

If this were to happen then perhaps we would get less focus on individual schools on the occasions they come into focus and more on the bigger picture, all of the time. We would be able to put more pressure on the factors that lead to school failure (recognising that sometimes schools fail because the people running them just aren’t up to it) and on those organisations (LAs, MATs, DfE, Ofsted etc) responsible for, and capable of, initiating the changes necessary. And we can shine a light on them when they are failing. Which is probably why they don’t present the data in this way.

See, I told you that you wouldn’t like it.