'The key to tackling the retention crisis? Accepting that students' results aren't just down to teachers'

It's the elephant in education's room: teachers have much less of an impact on pupil attainment than we think. If we take this on board then we can adopt a much more positive approach to assessing teaching, writes Thomas Rogers

Tom Rogers

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A few weeks ago, Ofsted national director Sean Harford surprisingly admitted to me in conversation on Twitter that he agreed with the research I’d highlighted in this article.

I accept that schools and teachers within them can only account for a proportion of the impact on pupils' test/exam results. I have no reason to doubt the research suggesting ~15%. That doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to maximise the impact of schools on wider outcomes through >>

— Sean Harford (@HarfordSean) February 4, 2018

My piece argued that teachers have a much smaller impact on student results than the government, Ofsted and wider society would like to admit. The collective research points to 80-85 per cent of attainment being attributed to outside influences, a point which Sean said he could believe.

If this acceptance was transmitted into Ofsted’s inspection policy, though, we should see a much more scattered distribution of Ofsted outcomes. We should see much less of a link between inspection grades and KS2/GCSE results: certainly not the 90 per cent-odd match we currently see.

If this change were made, grammar schools would not be more likely to get "good" or "outstanding" grades than comprehensive schools – as they are now. Schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students shouldn’t be less likely to get a "good" or "outstanding" grade – as they are now.

Don't judge teachers on results alone

The fact is there is nearly always another explanation for major differences between schools in terms of exam results. Only last week it was revealed that the differences between northern and southern schools in Progress 8 scores could be mostly attributed to outside factors including ethnicity and first language – and school characteristics, such as the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals.

Despite all this evidence, Ofsted (and others) perpetuate the myth that the teachers and schools in the North simply aren’t as good as those in London.

We would go a long way to resolving the teacher retention crisis if the whole system were to accept that teachers can do much less for students’ academic progress and attainment than we currently like to imagine. We could then change the way we assess the quality of teachers and teaching to a more realistic and positive one.

The weight of evidence for this change is as clear as day, and yet getting politicians to make the leap is probably impossible – I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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