When we look at the quality of education, might “good” be good enough? - Martin Hoskin
By Martin Hoskin, Head of Teaching, Learning & Quality at HSDC and Research Further Scholar
“The whole frame of modern culture…has tended to be one of control, mastery and domination” (Dunne, 2021)
The seemingly relentless quest for colleges to be recognised as outstanding further education providers is a contentious point of discourse, particularly as the word “outstanding” implies perfection, a feat so rarely - if ever - achieved. The Italian philosopher Voltaire declared that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, suggesting that an unbridled search for perfection prevents the implementation of “good” improvements.
As a college leader, I am concerned that a fixation on “outstanding”, the Ofsted gold standard, not only prevents the implementation of good improvements, which can have a significant impact on both the student experience and staff wellbeing, but also alienates those who do not feel that they are able to be outstanding, because of the context they are working in.
Biesta (2015, p2-3) argues that long-standing measures of “strong” education are dependent upon the successful achievement of pre-defined learning outcomes and that this measure of strength portrays a “fundamental misunderstanding of what education is about”. Objective-laden assessment of practice, which deals with absolutes, causes issues, as it discounts variability and practitioners can switch off, or even be diminished, as a result of negative experiences. Believing in a singular truth, such as a “blueprint” for teaching and learning, can stunt the evolution of teaching practice, inhibiting professional judgement, and discourage practitioners from going “off-piste” even when it is the right thing to do (Dunne, 1997).
This kind of risk averse culture works to limit the innovation and free thinking required to find the solutions to the problems we face in education. Instead, it encourages “performativity”, which, ironically, acts to disguise the reality of what is apparently required to be labelled as outstanding, by diverting teachers' attention away from students to focus on appeasing inspectors (Coffield, 2017).
Ball (2003, p. 216) notes that performativity within education, a concept which emerged because of education reforms in the 1990s, creates “a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change, based on rewards and sanctions”. The title of Ball’s work, The Teachers Soul and the Terrors of Performativity, expresses the feeling some educators have towards Ofsted: terror, often with the added sentiment that Ofsted’s methods might be invalid, unreliable, and unjust (Coffield, 2017). Despite reported attempts to change their approach, Carr (2022) suggests that Ofsted might be “overpromising and under-delivering and being quite disingenuous in the process” when it comes to Education Inspection Framework (EIF) reform.
As college leaders, we are often, sometimes even unknowingly, fixated upon being “outstanding” and this ultimately affects the decisions we make, particularly around the assessment of teaching practice and our aversion to risk. A risk-tolerant culture in which failure is supported rather than punished can provide greater opportunities for educators to innovate and try new things, learning along the way regardless of the outcome (Biesta, 2015). However, there are often several factors which prevent this from happening. Internally, policies and processes, often focusing heavily on preserving an objective-driven approach to the “measurement” of education, add an element of fear to the development of teaching practice. These are most likely determined by the external influence of Ofsted as the omnipotent overseer and judge of education provision across the UK, who still seem focused on maintaining an EIF, which is ‘driving out innovation’ and ‘destroying trust’ in educators (Coffield and Williamson, 2011).
Biesta (2015) argues that education involves more than just “qualification” and that “subjectification” is an important consideration. The detached nature of observing and verifying objectives as fact is also criticised by Dunne (1997), as lacking familiarity with a teacher's situation or background and therefore any judgement against said objectives is void of context. Retaining an objective-led quality improvement model only serves to solicit rational action that can be systematically applied.
Any judgements are then based simply upon a desire to achieve empirical truth rather than being content with contextualising the outcome through discourse. In contrast, by first understanding the context in which colleges are situated, before exploring the microcosm of the individual classroom, judgements of teaching practice can be made with a far greater degree of credibility and truthfulness.
It is evident that objective assessment of practice, such as that seen in Ofsted inspection and graded lesson observations, can lead to some practitioners feeling locked in a cycle of empty rituals. It takes courage and commitment from educational leaders and policymakers to see that it doesn’t have to be this way. Maintaining the status quo will only continue to limit the open-mindedness of teachers and college leaders, inevitably resulting in the predictable failure of the default top-down, expert-led approach, which proposes that solutions for any problem can be easily found and prescribed like medication for a sick patient. If a good job is not seen as good enough, despite real and positive changes being made, the education sector will continue to push its staff to breaking point for what many would consider a fool's errand.
I don’t believe that anybody should have the power to make judgements without there being a shared responsibility and accountability for addressing areas of development. I recognise that we need to create tension points in order to do things differently and we also need to ensure public accountability, especially when it is taxpayers' money which funds a service, but I believe we can do this as part of a far more collaborative and developmental process which we can all buy into. After all, no-one goes into teaching to be a bad teacher!
Ofsted's role in education could therefore benefit from a more pragmatic approach to quality improvement, taking some responsibility themselves in helping to fix the problems they say schools and colleges have. This “shared endeavour” might help to restore a sense of credibility to Ofsted's role, by becoming part of the model of change and playing a more positive role in quality improvement. In turn, models of quality improvement within colleges would inevitably evolve to mirror the approach of Ofsted, as they often do now, leading to wholesale, sector-wide reform. The argument of whether “good” is good enough is then null and void as the quality improvement process focuses on a cycle of continuous development rather than the current labelling exercise, which has been shown to have such a detrimental effect on staff wellbeing.
- Ball, S. J. (2003). The Teacher's Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. Journal of education policy, 18(2), 215-228.
- Biesta, G. J. (2015). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Routledge Link
- Carr, J. (2022, September 23). Ofsted branded ‘disingenuous’ over wellbeing review. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ofst...'overpromising%20and%20under%2Ddelivering'&text=An%20NEU%20survey%20of%20more,would%20improve%20their%20mental%20wellbeing.
- Coffield, F. & Williamson, B. (2011) From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery. London, Institute of Education Publications
- Coffield, F. (2017). Will the Leopard Change Its Spots?: A New Model of Inspection for Ofsted. UCL Institute of Education Press.
- Dunne, J. (1997). Back to the Rough Ground: Practical Judgement and the Lure of Technique. University of Notre Dame Press.
- Dunne, J. (2021). What's the Good of Education?. In The RoutledgeFalmer reader in philosophy of education (pp. 145-160). Routledge.
- Voltaire (1770). Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, par des Amateurs. Vol. 2. Geneva, Switzerland: (publisher not named). p. 250.
The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.