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If I had to define myself professionally, I’d say that more than anything else, I’m an educationalist. I have my PhD supervisor to thank for pointing it out to me – before he told me as much, I was a bit adrift in terms of knowing how to explain my status.

So, although I work on the Social Brain project at the RSA, my heart really lies in the field of education. In light of this, yesterday’s triumphant event, which saw Becky Francis discuss her excellent report on Satisfactory Schools with Sir Michael Wilshaw, was a great thing to witness.

At the same time as feeling very pleased that such an excellent piece of work has been conducted by my colleagues at RSA, and that it has led to a powerful shift in rhetoric on the part of Ofsted, I also felt kind of sad on account of the small battle that has been lost.

Becky’s report recommended that ‘satisfactory’ schools be recategorised as ‘performing inconsistently’. Ofsted responded positively to this, but didn’t embrace it fully, instead opting to describe these schools as ‘requiring improvement’.

For me, the most interesting part of yesterday’s discussion between Becky and Michael was around this issue of semantics. Becky pointed out that many schools graded as ‘satisfactory’ often have good or even outstanding features in certain departments or across specific domains. Although overall, ‘satisfactory’ schools are patently not good enough, there’s more often than not a lot of good work going on within them.

Those squeezed schools in the middle are very often up against the wall, poorly resourced, with over-stressed and undervalued leaders doing their best against the odds. No wonder that individual performance is inconsistent. But, if you’re an individual working in that sort of culture, and you’re good at your job, performing outstandingly on behalf of your pupils, how much more galling that your efforts are not recognised.

like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently

And, anyway, (for fear of revealing my terrible weakness for pedantry) surely every single school in the country can only really accurately be described as performing inconsistently. Even Eton lets down its pupils in just as many ways as it serves them. Education should not primarily be about exam results, or the ability to bamboozle those less articulate than oneself. It should be focused on enabling everyone, no matter what their background, to grow into the best version of themselves. The skills required in the 21st Century are different to those that were important even a generation ago. Not everyone needs to be numerate (in the old sense) in order to be a fully functioning member of society. But, I think everyone does need to have as much capacity for empathy, for solidarity, and for coping with change as they can muster.

So, although Becky’s report and the impact it has already made are a triumph for our education system, I’m disappointed that the accuracy of her categorisation has not been fully taken up. The nuance it conveys is precisely the kind of nuance that our society needs to grow its capacity to appreciate if we are to survive the 21st century. But, I suppose, like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently.


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