The public contortions that politicians and officials are having to perform to keep denying the existence of the accountability crisis gripping our fractured education system are now so surreal and so comical that I can only see them as live-action adaptations of Dr Seuss stories. The curriculum debate is Oh! The Thinks You Can Think! Labour’s position is If I Ran the Circus, and the Lib Dems’ is If I Ran the Zoo. The trad/prog debate? A mash-up of The Sneetches and The Zax. My favourite of all, though, is Oh! The Places You’ll Go! The perfect parable for the fiction of school improvement itself. Let me take you there.
As news broke last week that Britain’s strictest headteacher had had enough of abusive parents and was heading off to ply her trade abroad, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman announced that her organisation would be keeping its format of school grades, because “an effective system of school choice requires information for parents”. And in a separate announcement, the inspectorate made public the fact that it is reviewing its ParentView survey.
So, to sum up: parents are abusive to us. They are less respectful of us than they used to be. Yet, we are going to continue with devastating high-stakes inspections because parents want them, and we will add to that by allowing parents to vent their dissatisfaction through a TripAdvisor-style app.
What’s the matter with parents, anyway? What did we ever do to them?
At least we’ll know who to point the finger at when another school full of hard-working teachers is slammed into a failing category, losing swathes of its workforce and its best-performing students. We’ll be able to follow Spielman’s own lead, and say the school’s community, who are predominantly [insert defining characteristic here], “lacks the aspiration and drive” of more successful schools’ communities, who tend to be [insert preferred characteristic here]".
Teachers v parents
Once we’ve done that, we’ll be able to justify all sorts of remedial actions: academisation; parachuting in a leadership team that won’t accept the low bar set by the previous one; changing the school’s curriculum to really foreground powerful knowledge, which the community clearly lack.
Next, we’ll be able to justify moving families on who refuse the treatment, and moving teachers on who refuse to administer it. Initially, the ParentPower™ reviews won’t be great, but Ofsted will take context into consideration, and things will rapidly improve.
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
With our schools full of knowledge and our policies void of excuses,
We’ll be able to focus on exam-gaming ruses.
We won’t lag behind, because we’ll have no fatigue.
We’ll pass the whole gang and we’ll soon win the league.
We’ll quickly recover from our deserved crash landing,
And find our way up to be labelled "outstanding".
Except when we don’t.
Because sometimes, we won’t.
I’m sorry to say, but sadly it’s true,
That schools can get stuck, and frequently do.
If any point on the improvement trajectory is missed, it’ll be back to square one. Let’s be clear, though. Square one isn’t academisation or the imposition of a new leadership team. No, blaming the community is the new "Go!" on the school-edition Monopoly board. It’s the upshot of a generalised crisis of education. It won’t do for politicians to hold schools responsible for mitigating the effects of everything that can depress a community any more, so politicians are our new besties, teaming up with us to bat responsibility back on to communities themselves.
Yet, if rebranding a school and expunging its Ofsted record, near-constant HMI monitoring, a new curriculum, tougher behaviour policies and waves of high exclusions aren’t enough. If, as might be expected, all they do is rescue one school’s reputation at the expense of another’s, or worse, hide problems and store them up for a later date, then what?
Well, then we might need to accept that our communities need real, long-term, economic solutions. An Ofsted chief might say that there really is evidence that austerity is damaging education. Funding might be restored to all the services schools and their children rely on. School budgets might increase at the next spending review.
And then, Oh! The places we’ll go!
Things in our schools will really improve.
Segregation will lessen. Inequality, too.
The headlines will read:
"Our schools' top Pisa scores!"
"They’ve screamed into the lead!”
“They’ve overtaken Singapore’s.”
Except when they don’t.
Because, frankly, they won’t.
I’m afraid that sometimes, we’ll get thrown under the bus.
It’s a game we can’t win, because we’re playing against us.
The Ofsted blame game
Unesco’s global education report on accountability is clear: a market-based approach creates competitive pressure that marginalises disadvantaged parents and schools. Spielman is quite right that such a system needs information, but her use of the word obfuscates what that information is for. Simply, it is for the apportionment of blame.
Is it any surprise teachers blame parents, when we are held solely responsible for outcomes and standards we have little control over?
Is it any surprise parents blame teachers, when they are reduced to passive consumers without any real choice?
The government’s recruitment and retention strategy. Ofsted’s new framework. The Timpson Review. They do nothing but tinker at the edges of the problem. If we want a truly world-class system that works for all students, then as professionals we have to accept our responsibility for much more than just our students’ test results.
That doesn’t mean we have to solve poverty, knife crime or all of society’s ills. Not alone, anyway.
But it does mean stepping up and refusing to play along with the blame game, merrily throwing each other and our communities under the bus for an "outstanding" badge.
As someone who led on parental engagement in one of those stuck schools, I have no problem telling you that those parents who would write you the worst ParentPower™ reviews are your greatest untapped potential – your allies in delivering a great education for all students, not just those on your rolls.
Work with them, and each other. Soon, you won’t need ParentPower™, and they won’t need Ofsted’s "information". They’ll respect you more. You and your staff will feel less vulnerable to abuse. Even better, you could create a culture in which "Britain’s strictest headteacher" is neither a compliment nor an insult; simply an irrelevance.
And will you succeed?
You will indeed.
Ninety-nine and three-quarters per cent guaranteed.
JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge). He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either