I no longer cringe when, amid a discussion about current education policy, someone opens the cliché locker and churns out “well, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it”.
As with “been there, got the T-shirt” and “like Marmite: you love it or hate it”, that “fatten the pig” aphorism is one of those platitudes, one of those tedious phrases, that really ought to be consigned to cliché heaven.
But such is our preoccupation with measuring things in the English education system that so many conversations end up involving that phrase.
So, no, we don’t fatten a pig merely by weighing it. Constant formal assessment gets in the way of teaching – judging things gets in the way of actually doing things.
Recent headlines demonstrate just how much we take for granted our obsession in the English education system with testing, monitoring and judging, and how much we allow a certain clunky view of assessment to drive our behaviours.
Thus concerns grow about the unclear role of regional schools commissioners. Are they inspectors or not? If this is supposed to be a school-led system, how come people in regional offices try to predict a school’s trajectory based on a spreadsheet on a desktop computer?
This philosophical conundrum – school-led or top down? – feels less than philosophical when it’s your school that’s being talked about for "brokering" or "rebrokering" like a village pub being passed to some anonymous distant brewery.
It’s an indication of how, in the great experiment of our English education system, the discourse has become industrial, mechanistic, dehumanised.
The 'culture of fear'
She talked of wanting to end the “culture of fear” across school leadership teams, saying: “The fear narrative is a bit out of proportion. You can’t come up with even one busload of heads who lose their jobs because of an inspection.”
I’m always open to new ways of measuring things, but I hope we don’t judge aspects of an inspection system by whether heads losing their jobs can be counted in mere “busloads”.
Because what we know is this: no Ofsted team tells a governing body to sack the headteacher. Our insights, as an association representing 19,000 school and college leaders, confirm that. Ofsted doesn’t dismiss heads.
But we do know that far too many members of leadership teams – not just heads – often in challenging communities, often after far too short a time to make an impact on behalf of their community, really do lose their jobs when people lose confidence in them. Such outcomes are too often triggered by the mechanisms of measurement – performance tables, progress measures and, yes, Ofsted inspections. These are the catalysts for personal disaster.
And, yes, you can fill a bus with them – in fact, you can probably fill several buses.
It means that a terrible sense of fear stalks too much leadership, and for the chief inspector to say that we shouldn’t be so scared in a climate in which school leaders can and do lose their jobs on a fairly regular basis, is at odds with the harsh reality.
This isn’t all about Ofsted. It’s about an education culture that too often seems punitive, too apparently unforgiving.
When the secondary school performance tables were published a fortnight ago, one new headteacher wrote to me, saying: “I never ever buy the national tabloids, but felt compelled to click on the link a colleague sent me about DfE league tables today. I quickly found our academy, alongside the names of other academies which many of my contemporaries have the privilege of leading. There we were branded as a failing school. The sad thing about the publication of these league tables is that in many cases, such as ours, teams of staff and leaders have chosen to go and address the issues faced by schools and communities in difficulty. Am I being naive in thinking that a great story would be to showcase some of the blood, sweat and tears that are turning these schools around?”
From where I sit, I see good people doing their best in unremitting circumstances. I see public service placed in the uncompromising epicentre of the public gaze.
Yes, of course, we must measure the effectiveness of our schools and, no, we cannot tolerate ineffective leadership.
But our obsession with measurement and judgement has surely gone too far when we end up discussing the number of people who lose their jobs, often because of short-term accountability measures, in terms of busloads.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets