The 'Outstanding' school fallacy.

(It's not one where the staff work twice as hard as the kids)


This week an insurance firm specialising in coverage against teachers being off work published some revealing figures showing that stress causes twice the amount of time off as common ailments with the firm's director Harry Cramer noting that "among men it is the single biggest reason." In another (admittedly less rigorous) study, a preliminary online survey of 3,500 members of the NASUWT showed that 67% of teachers felt that the job was adversely affecting their mental health, with 76% saying they are “seriously considering” leaving the profession.

The usual suspects rolled out are Ofsted, consistent curriculum changes, poor behaviour and increased bureaucracy but one thing that's rarely mentioned is that in many schools it would appear that teachers are working significantly harder than the pupils in their charge, and not so much because the kids are lazy but rather because of an institutionalised miasma that is obsessed with measuring everything (usually poorly) that privileges the spreadsheet over the individual and which has infantilised the process of learning to such a degree that actually knowing stuff is deemed less important than merely appearing to know stuff.

What are the contributing factors here? I think there are three core issues:

1. Ownership of results 

 For whatever reason the ownership of student achievement has somehow transferred from pupil to teacher. We now talk about *our* results, not *their* results. Many teachers start off in September with a well intentioned focus on 'independent learning' only to end up in Feb-May doing a series of lessons that look more like the Gettysburg address. If results now *belong* to the teachers, why should the students work as hard? 


2. A culture of Spoon-feeding.

In a culture that audits itself purely in terms of readily quantifiable measures against often arbitrary targets (with very real consequences for the teacher as opposed to the student) the inevitable outcome will be for teachers to do 'whatever it takes' to hit those targets, and this has led to some of the most unethical practices ever seen and yet those same schools are deemed 'outstanding.' 

3. The "shrinking of intellectual aspiration." 

Can't claim credit for that phrase, I heard Tony Little say it last week and it struck a chord. Something I find more alarming than the proportion of kids who lack basic foundational knowledge (in terms of culture/history/politics) is the amount of teachers who think that's ok. Too many schools now are bastions of anti-intellectualism that exist only to hit targets and where being clever and culturally aware comes second to passing an exam.


In a school culture that seems to think purely in financial terms, it will view individuals as expendable and the inevitable outcome is that canopy of meaningless bureaucracy and stress where teachers are more skilled at data entry that knowing their subject. 

And the saddest thing is that the kids then begin to think in this fiscal way, and demand 'painting by numbers' style teaching in order to pass exams and one day inevitably utter the most depressing sentence you can hear as a teacher: 'but will this be in the exam?' 

An outstanding school is not one where the teachers are working twice as hard as the kids. It's a quivering house of cards that is constantly on the verge of collapse. 


Mark Anderson Mark Anderson @markanderson 4 months ago
Absolutely bang on the money!
Liane Pitcher-Leigh Liane Pitcher-Leigh @lplflippedeng 4 months ago
I don't know a single teacher who signed up to teach to the exam, but I know plenty who have ended up doing so. I think your point about ownership of results is a really important one and I wish I had a plan to help to change it back...
Tarjinder Gill Tarjinder Gill @gillt 4 months ago
Spot on about the anti-intellectualism.
Julie Hunter Julie Hunter @mshmfl 4 months ago
Interesting article today about exam cheating by teachers. Performance related pay may also be driving this "ownership" of results. Teachers know that student results will make or break pay decisions therefore teaching to the exam is now highly evident in many classrooms.
Paul Elliott Paul Elliott @pilgrimpaul 4 months ago
Never a truer word spoken!
Mark Peters Mark Peters @mrp 4 months ago
I am having to train myself out of saying they're 'my' results - but it's not easy to do. When accountability has such high stakes attached, what you've described is the result. How do we solve it? I wish I knew!
Freya Odell Freya Odell @fod3 4 months ago
Agree - need to take a pause on such a huge focus with year 11 and really ensure aspirations and expectations are high with regard to year 7 and KS3.
Freya Odell Freya Odell @fod3 4 months ago
Agree - need to take a pause on such a huge focus with year 11 and really ensure aspirations and expectations are high with regard to year 7 and KS3.
Lesley Munro Lesley Munro @lesleymunro 4 months ago
Agreed, makes me feel sad. Not sure of the answer
Kimberley Constable Kimberley Constable @hecticteacher 4 months ago
Totally agree with you. I teach a non examined subject (PSHE) and constantly get asked why do the students have to take the subject when there is no qualification at the end. My reply is always that it is just as important that you are able to talk and discuss things that will never come up on an exam as it will show them to be well rounded culturally aware people.
Fiona Thomas Fiona Thomas @fthomas 4 months ago
Makes you realise how things have changed! and not all for the better.
Ben Ward Ben Ward @mrbenward 4 months ago
Very true and eloquently put too
Jane  Basnett Jane Basnett @janebasnett 4 months ago
Can we teach beyond the exam? What we know is right.
Helena Marsh Helena Marsh @helenamarsh 4 months ago
Well put @carlhendrick So easy to get absorbed in a school culture where attainment in exams are held above the broad, balanced and important values of education.
Jane  Basnett Jane Basnett @janebasnett 4 months ago
Great post btw
Tim Taylor Tim Taylor @timtaylor 4 months ago
So how do we change it? Can we change it?
Answer: not without a revolution in education. Are we prepared to totally rethink the system from the top to the bottom?
Lenny Dutton Lenny Dutton @missedutton 4 months ago
Really good to see someone acknowledging the problems to mental health teaching can cause. I really think there is still a lack of understanding of how hard teachers work - and teachers never want to let their students down, so work themselves silly, and don't practice proper self care
Alison Weston Alison Weston @craftyteacher 4 months ago
So true! There not my results, they belong to the students! At the end of the day, it is the individual child who sits at the desk and completes the paper. We can only ever do our best to make sure that they are prepared for that day.
Zebedee Friedman Zebedee Friedman @zebfriedman 4 months ago
Were the results this good when we didn't own them? I'm not suggesting that spoon feeding is good or that we should be teaching to the exam but the pressure is crazy...
Sadly this often leads to poorer teaching and learning in the most challenging schools
Linda Doyle Linda Doyle @mrsdoyle 4 months ago
I'm up for a revolution of change!
Claire Bracher Claire Bracher @missb 4 months ago
I can't stand spoon reading.... nothing was ever discovered via the spoon... learning is all about thinking.. love this - thought provoking indeed! thanks!
Nina Elliott Nina Elliott @senoraelliott 4 months ago
Can not agree more - students constantly looking for ways to take short cuts and wonder why I can't just let them read / copy - have now drilled into them that their GCSE in langs is a life skill - so much MORE than a grade - though of course difficult to RAG this!
Dave  Stacey Dave Stacey @davestacey 4 months ago
I think we're suffering from unintended consequences of some probably well-meaning initiatives. We need to be able to identify these things as problems and then work to resolve them. As part of that we may need to contextualize education - we're starting to in Wales now. In England that's much harder I suspect. Will need the whole school, Govs, Snr Leaders, Parents and Pupils to all agree this is a problem and work against it. Much easier to type than do.
Abigail Mann Abigail Mann @abster 4 months ago
Completely agree. Unsure of the answer too @lesleymunro I've told students in the past that I'm not just teaching them to pass an exam. They seem to want some kind of formulaic answer to everything they do.
Kimberley Constable Kimberley Constable @hecticteacher 4 months ago
Claire Bracher I start yr12 telling the students that if they expect spoon feeding and for me to tell them everything then they are in the wrong class, I totall expect my students to take ownership and have been moving towards a more flipped style of teaching with them.
[Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] [Retired Colleague] 4 months ago
I like to use the term 'our results.' Let's be honest, they aren't just the students as otherwise poor teaching would still lead to academic success. We do have a responsibility. I've come across many teachers who demand spoon feeding also.

Also, it depends on what the aims of a school are - personally I think it's about producing young people who can engage with and change the world so they need to care about something first.
Jill Berry Jill Berry @jillberry 4 months ago
It's interesting, though, that I can remember the 'Will it be in the exam?' comment from pupils when I started teaching in the early 1980s. Pre National Curriculum, Ofsted, league tables and the current high stakes accountability culture...
Nina Elliott Nina Elliott @senoraelliott 4 months ago
do agree with @zebfriedman - currently working in RI school and risk aversion is endemic! I'm of the opinion that RI schools are where risks need to be taken and a stand against spoon feeding is at the very least the first stage
Claire Bracher Claire Bracher @missb 4 months ago
Kimberley I actually start year 6 the same way... harsh maybe but necessary!! It's part of the transition for them - time to stand and think and be brave enough to have a go!!! :)
Andrea Walker Andrea Walker @musemusic 4 months ago
This is a really good point. I used to say 'I have my A, I don't need yours..... Now I do apparently. This has not made me care more because I cared in the first place, just less healthy. A student in an mfl cover said to me... I can't read that I'm a level 4. I said what has your level got to do with trying to read the passage? With my help (can do a bit of French) he got through as we discussed, related, and questioned our way through it. Has being told what grade you are going to get at the start of year ten caused this lack of aspiration to achieve?
Simon Johnson Simon Johnson @clcsimon 4 months ago
Agree totally, especially the bit about us now talking about *our* results as opposed to *their* results. I sometimes feel that I'm inadvertently placing the pressures of my job onto my students which is TOTALLY wrong!
Mark Steven Mark Steven @what 4 months ago
I found McTighe & Wiggins 'Understanding by Design' to be helpful in balancing the needs of tests with the 'big ideas' of curriculum. The trick is to take responsibility for results but not teach in such a way as that responsibility bleeds into the classroom. Easier said than done, but achievable.
Heather Marshall Heather Marshall @hez 4 months ago
Totally agree with this - not sure how things can change but they definitely need to. We're not doing our students any favours by spoon-feeding them.
Leah Sharp Leah Sharp @leahmoo 4 months ago
Completely agree with sharing the responsibility with children for the results. It would be nice if there was less focus on 'results' in terms of grades and more focus on results in terms of their ability to understand how they learn and developing a curiosity to learn.
Kimberley Constable Kimberley Constable @hecticteacher 4 months ago
Claire my class size went from 22 to 16 in the space of a week, but it showed me who was willing to do the work and who really didn't want to be there.
Hannah Tyreman Hannah Tyreman @hannahtyreman 4 months ago
These are fairly sobering and timely thoughts as I consider my own learners' revision strategies as we move towards exams. Working in FE, I see a lot of movement away from teaching to the exam and I like it! Recently, we have tasked our Graphics students to redesign our #ReadTL15 logo. The teams of learners will be pitching their designs to us on Friday. We presented as a business and their lecturers have collapsed the timetable for two weeks so that learners can work independently, at home etc. They had mock presentations to their mentors (in year 2 of the course) on Friday just passed. We've seen evidence of their research, creativity, designs and presentation preparation via the Google+ community and this live brief has given them far more experience than working towards a manufactured assessment might. The learners are developing the kinds of skills and attributes they would in the workplace such as managing deadlines, working under pressure, meeting the needs of a client, collaborating, being creative within set parameters...I can't think of many learning experiences that could surpass this. Certainly not what my A Level learners are embarking upon: practice essays for the next few weeks and then writing an essay under extreme timed conditions (1 hr 30 mins) never to be used or thought of again. Yes, they develop SOME transferable skills but this kind of experience does not replicate anything they'll need to do again as an adult. Is this really what education is for and about?
Jessica Rice Jessica Rice @jessicarice 4 months ago
Totally agree so many of the pupils I teach give up if they can't find the answer in the first paragraph/ sentence of text! The need for us to make sure they find the answer encourages laziness and lack of resilience
Stephanie Welsford Stephanie Welsford @stephwelsford 4 months ago
Every time we say 'our' results it seeps into the consciousness of the pupils and feeds their passivity. And then we wonder why they struggle at A Level...
Laura Holdsworth Laura Holdsworth @mrsholdsworth 4 months ago
I feel like this might apply to Year 6 but not the rest of my school, we teach through inquiry based learning and although we do obviously try to incorporate specific curriculum objectives, the learning is really hands on and child led.
Simon  Robilliard Simon Robilliard @sarobilliard 4 months ago
This post really resonates with so much of the thinking that I am doing at the moment. It makes me think that we are often committing the cardinal sin of trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. The 'panic' to employ interventions for Y11 is surely like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. I also feel that not enough is done to break down the barriers of teaching students of different phases. Why is it that there are still so many barriers to sharing our skills and experiences beyond our school gates..(this is probably less true of academy federations!)
PJ Merrell PJ Merrell @pjm 4 months ago
Thank you for this - really interesting. So hard to get 13s to see they need to do the work, when it's the first time they've heard that idea before ....
Emma Davies Emma Davies @emdavies 4 months ago
Really agree with this, esp. academic rigour.
Flora RH Richards Flora RH Richards @cupacoco 4 months ago
@daviderogers I totally agree with raising, teaching and empowering young people 'to want to change the world so they need to care about something first.'
For me that's what Religious Studies is about.

I like the idea of flipped learning, and I have trially it - I've found the organisational, literacy and communication skills have to be there first to make it work.

Thanks @carlhendrick for posting this. Really thought provoking. Our young people need to read, learn, discover and be curious about the world in which they live.
Jeremy Burton Jeremy Burton @jeremyburton 4 months ago
Very well articulated, @carlhendrick. This culture of dependency and tendency towards spoon feeding is spreading into Higher Ed too.
Brendan McEvoy Brendan McEvoy @bmmathsyorks 4 months ago
So it's not just me then that is feeling this. Currently am marking mock exams and am "stressing" at the reactions from SLT over "my" results. :-(
Samantha Richardson Samantha Richardson @samantha1 2 months ago
Interesting article and one I would agree with