Education Policy, School-wide Literacy
Comment 1

What Are Your Intentions?

Recently, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, gave a speech in which she outlined Ofsted’s new approach to inspecting schools. One of the key changes is a new heading, ‘Quality of Education’, which will encompass teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum.

Her explanation of how these will be evaluated by Ofsted is worth quoting directly:

“Under quality of education, we intend to look at three distinct aspects. First the intent – what is it that schools want for all their children? Then the implementation – how is teaching and assessment fulfilling the intent? Finally, the impact – that is the results and wider outcomes that children achieve and the destinations that they go on to.”

Intent is a very interesting question, not least because what we say we will do, and what we actually do, are often quite different. Virtually every school has a mission statement that talks about equipping students to be academically successful and to make positive contributions to society. The reality is that in many schools, a section of the student population will be neither challenged nor equipped to become participating members of society. This doesn’t usually happen as a result of deliberate choices by school leaders, but rather, these children are caught between multiple competing agendas. (Ironically enough, some of these agendas are focused on how to surive an Ofsted inspection.) Unless our statement of mission is accompanied by a detailed, practical roadmap, the complexities of school life will almost certainly frustrate our efforts.

The question that Amanda Spielman asks resonates because of its scope. It is not asking about the school’s goals for some of its students, but for all of them. And this, I suspect, is not a question that all school leaders have faced in the past. For example, we know that a large proportion of students leave school with minimal literacy skills – see this DfE report from 2015 that admitted that 17% of 15-year-olds had skills below Level 1 of the OECD’s international literacy assessment. It’s the tendency for schools to see such failure levels as acceptable, even for a skill as fundamental as reading, that is challenged by the question of intent.

Our response to the question, “What is our intention for all our students?’ should, one would hope, include the notion that they should all be proficient in literacy and numeracy skills. Schools have not really had to answer such a question about all of their students before. As long as a reasonable proportion of students succeeded in final assessments, those who failed were simply accepted as a collateral damage: evidence that the exam system had rigour. But now that the focus is shifting away from exams alone, it is almost inevitable that schools will be scrutinised for how they have managed those students who were previously simply exam fodder.

Bill Rogers, the Australian author who has written so helpfully about behaviour management, posits that in classrooms there are ‘stated rules’ (the ones we have on a poster by the door) and the ‘real rules’ (what is actually noticed and enforced on a day-to-day basis). Students will very quickly adapt their behaviour to what they perceive as the ‘real rules’. For example, if I display rules saying that “At Hogwarts Academy we arrive on time to lessons”, and then take no action when students arrive late, students will quickly learn that the ‘real rules’ allow for a lack of punctuality. This is why behaviour standards can vary so widely from class to class, despite the best efforts of school leaders to devise homogeneous systems that apply across all parts of the school. The consistency has to happen with all staff in every lesson.

The same principle applies to schools whose stated mission is that all students will succeed academically, or leave school equipped with the skills for lifelong learning. Unless the school leaders and staff are equipped with the skills to recognise and solve reading problems, the ‘real rules’ of the organisation will prevail, namely, that some students are treated as if they are beyond help, and for whom, therefore, the school’s mission statement cannot apply.

This position may have been tenable in the past, but now, for two reasons, it is no longer so. The first reason is that Ofsted’s question about intent is followed by questions about implementation and impact. If our mission does not translate into commensurate outcomes, something is wrong with either our mission or our implementation. The second reason is that, for many years, assumptions (such as, for example, that some children are inherently unable to learn to read) have prevailed in the education community. Increasingly, the data is accumulating to demonstrate that this is simply not the case. If we change the way that we deal with these students, we can see remarkable gains.

All of which leaves us with some soul-searching to do. What do we really want for all our children? If schools spend more time pondering this question, and less time trying to elicit the data required to survive the next inspection hurdle, that can only be a good thing.

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