Ask any parent what’s important in their child’s schooling and it won’t be long before they say that it is having the right teachers - teachers who care, who enthuse about learning and who help their child develop and progress. So, comfortingly, we all know that it is great teachers and great teaching who make the difference.
What then should be our response to the government’s white paper proposal that Ofsted will consult on removing the separate graded judgements on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment? If this is what matters most, shouldn’t schools be held to account for it and parents be able to see how good it is?
One of the joys and complexities about teaching is that the deeper you go the harder it is to pin down what excellence really looks and feels like. We are all familiar with the view that young learners themselves are good at making this judgement and it is true that they may be on occasion, but it also needs to be borne in mind that their views are inevitably subjective. For a more objective analysis, we might turn to the evidence provided by research. This can explode some myths and usefully guide schools in the way they organise teaching and support teacher development.
How else do schools respond? As the white paper observes, some schools continue to feel that they are judged on whether or not they follow particular styles of teaching. This is despite Ofsted’s assurances that this is not the case and that it no longer grades individual lessons. It is much less prevalent now, but not so long back there was considerable paranoia regarding lesson grading. There was a thriving industry within and beyond schools in search of the ‘outstanding lesson’. Of course, no such template exists.
ASCL’s vision, in our Blueprint for a Self-improving System, is clear. Judgements should be based on the long-term outcomes for students rather than on observations of individual lessons. It is a much more challenging and sophisticated approach to judge teaching in terms of its impact over time. However, it very much chimes with what parents want for their children – the opening of doors through qualifications and skills. This places the emphasis on the progress which students make in their learning. Progress needs to be sustainable and measurable, which brings us to the challenge in terms of accountability.
Encouragingly, the white paper is strong in the area of what matters most and who is in charge. “High-quality teaching is, of course, vital,” it says. “Teaching, learning and assessment are a school’s core business. However…we believe that it is for schools and teachers to decide how to teach”. So, no fixed template. No holy grail. This clears the way instead for a recognition of the impact of good teaching over time based on the outcomes which children achieve.
A review of international research by the Teacher Development Trust, Developing Great Teaching, makes some revealing and seminal points. Perhaps the most telling is its key finding that: “Professional development opportunities that are carefully designed and have a strong focus on pupil outcomes have a significant impact on student achievement”.
So, it would seem that we need on the one hand to strive for meaningful and valid measures of progress in learning, and on the other to promote engaging and meaningful Continuous Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) for all teachers.
We can, and should, hold ourselves to account for each. However, to do this well may entail some root-and-branch reform of performance management policies and practice. We may need to be bold enough to combine a rigorous analysis of pupil outcomes alongside a measure which assesses the CPDL support given to teachers.
Such an approach will consign to the past the days of jumping to fad and fashion. It will be refreshing to recognise the complexities of great teaching and yet be clear that we welcome being held to account for doing our best to unravel them.