Christmas holidays arrive and all thoughts of anything vaguely education-related are banished from a world of socialising, over-indulgence and Lego construction. In fact, I’m so good at immersing myself in the new regime of lie-ins, long lunches and death by cheeseboard that I entirely forget I have another existence.
I’ve only had two conversations in the last fortnight that touched on education. Both of them were about how “good” a school was. One was with a friend worried that her children’s school had been named as one of the worst performing in the country, the other was with a teacher who taught close to one of the top-ranked schools.
Both schools in question had an Ofsted “good” rating. The named and shamed one was there because the previous Year 6 cohort had an unusually large proportion of special educational needs. The celebrated school had made it into the coveted upper echelon thanks to a Year 6 cohort consisting of just 12 children, none with SEND and all from supportive backgrounds. Predictably they achieved 100 per cent "expected standard" in Sats.
This is all the evidence that’s needed for newspapers to construct their best vs worst pieces. Obviously, to those working in the schools who know the truth of it, articles like this should be merely white noise and yet their potency can damage staff morale, reduce pupil numbers and solidify expectations.
“It’s just wrong to be so obsessed with ranking things,” I told Mr Brighouse as I switched channels to a programme called The 50 Greatest Christmas Films.
Of course, we classroom teachers who know the flaws in the judgement systems are able to rise above it. We can take the pronouncements with a pinch of salt and carry on teaching from the heart.
Only – we can’t. Whether we like it or not we are hardwired to respond to data, to being judged by external factors. It permeates our lives: from the number of likes on social media to who has the most read article on Tes website there are no end to the ways in which we can be judged and graded. If schools genuinely didn’t care how Ofsted sees them then why the banners? Why the cakes in the staffroom following a successful inspection? If ranking systems didn’t exist, would it be necessary to invent them?
Statistics mean nothing to the individual. Knowing you’ve a one in 10 million risk of being struck by lightning is no consolation to the person who has suddenly found themselves a lightning conductor. Similarly, some children will leave an “inadequate” school with a host of top grades and some will be bullied in a school in which behaviour and pastoral care has been rated “outstanding”.
While it’s obviously not possible to please all the people all the time, beneath every report you get a tale of two schools: don’t underestimate how much the school experience can differ for two children – or adults working in the same building.
Last term my mum was invited, in her role as governor, to attend the opening of a school garden dedicated to a much loved former caretaker and her husband. The city mayor, who presided over the opening, told the gathered crowd that a school who celebrated all their staff was incredibly heartening since her own mother, a school cleaner, had rarely been treated with respect by any teaching staff.
So if you’re a parent about to fill out a school application, don’t simply believe the headlines. Go and visit the school, talk to parents of children with SEND, see how many people in the building are smiling and – if you want to be really thorough – ask the cleaners.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a teacher in the Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse