A new research paper, prepared for Parliament Street by Tom Burkard and Colin McKenzie.
In England, good teachers are leaving the profession at the same time that school rolls are increasing. Even good schools often have difficulty filling vacancies. Workload and poor discipline have made teaching a highly stressful occupation—and school improvement programmes can add substantially to workload. The problem is most acute in schools that serve the most disadvantaged children.
For the last 30 years, successive governments have made determined efforts to improve our schools, yet most employers and university admissions officers think that standards have fallen. This should not surprise us: solutions imposed from above are seldom implemented with any real enthusiasm. Excessive management is not the answer to a lack of inspired leadership: good teachers and future leaders do not thrive and grow under the shadow of Ofsted.
Unfortunately, our current means of assessing pupil progress are woefully inadequate. Teacher assessments—especially the time-consuming marking of workbooks—are not only subjective, but they are the major source of excessive workload. Most teachers readily admit (albeit in private) that much of their inputted data is false and that most of their marking is not for the benefit of their student, but for their observer. Ofsted inspections are an ever-present Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers and senior leaders, yet the evidence that inspections are followed by lasting improvements is weak to non-existent. This shouldn’t surprise us: when lessons are frequently observed, pupils get the message: their teachers aren’t real professionals—they’re not trusted.
We need an Ofsted-exempt School programme where schools are actually free—one where teachers are only accountable for what their pupils have learned on objective tests of achievement, to be administered annually in core academic subjects. In secondary education, the basis for such testing already exists—many schools are already integrating routine tests of declarative and procedural knowledge into their lessons. These not only accurately measure the progress of all pupils towards good GCSE grades, but they utterly transform pupils’ attitude to learning. Unlike the amorphous ‘success criteria’ in Assessment for Learning, their learning objectives are concrete and unambiguous; hence, even the least able pupils have hard proof that they are indeed ‘making good progress’.
Initial reactions to this idea indicate that most good teachers would warmly welcome objective tests as an alternative to the Ofsted inspections, performance management reviews and subjective pupil assessment regime they are now expected to endure. Left with the freedom to develop their own ideas, England’s best teachers could not only vastly outstrip top-down measures but recruit and inspire a new generation of teachers; teaching could once again become a respected and attractive profession. Policy makers should welcome it too: at last we would have a valid and reliable measure of ‘what works’ in the classroom.