A Coasting School Could Be Good News by Maurice Holt

Another peculiar notion that has emerged from OFSTED over the last few years is the suggestion that there are coasting schools, which should be abhorred by all right-thinking folks. This label is attached to any school which fails to show year-on-year improvement in those misleading league tables of school performance. But what exactly is “performance”? The concept of performance used by OFSTED is contentious: there is more to education than the results of standardised tests.

 Until this badmouthing by OFSTED, I always thought the notion of coasting was a very agreeable one. I can picture small boats easing their way down river estuaries, pausing at villages to admire old churches; and one might read the report of a cricket match declaring that “England is now coasting to success with 200 runs in the bag.” Wonderful! Our team is deservedly content with its achievement, while still pressing ahead on a winning streak. Wrong! This would not be good enough for OFSTED. Only when every bowler’s arm is in a sling, and every batsman doubled up with neuralgia, would those hard-faced OFSTED scrutineers be satisfied. There’s the odour of the Victorian workhouse about this depressing organ of government – a hint perhaps that unless teachers are limp from exhaustion at the end of every day, the school will be coasting. The utterances of the new head of Ofsted, Sir M. Wilshaw, seem to indicate that nothing less will do.

 Like so much government nonsense, it all comes out of management-speak. The problem is that the kind of management theory peddled to ministers is outdated and wrong-headed: it’s the same test-based approach adopted in the US to judge school quality – and which has signally failed to deliver as promised. It is now the ark of the covenant for OFSTED. A far better management style has been advanced by Dr W Edwards Deming, who advised Japan, post-war, on car manufacture. He argued that process rather than outcome measurement is what matters, and that when an institution is working harmoniously as a system, it generates its own forms of improvement. If you look at photographs of assembly-line workers leaving the Morris Motors plant in Oxford in the 1930s, you will see the results of unrelenting labour in poor conditions – no coasting allowed there. And you will also understand why this business collapsed in the 1960s, in the face of better-built Japanese cars. In its day, the plant generated wonderful OFSTED-style profit figures – but at a price.

 Ofsted bases its assessments on quick school visits by teams of variable quality, often supplied by private contractors. The chief basis of judgment is the results of standardised tests; these are inadequate measures of the quality of a school’s educational programme. Neither can you judge the quality of a teacher by superficial surveys of trivia like lesson plans. A boring teacher will make a mess of any lesson plan, however much he uses the computerised whiteboard or his coloured chalks. A lively, responsive teacher may enter the room with nothing on paper, but in her head there’s a clear idea of where she wants to take the class and a variety of ways to get there, depending on how the lesson unfolds. Even better, an enlightened slow school might link cognate subjects together and form teachers into teams. The result is a rich learning environment that develops real engagement – and without that there is no understanding.

 Dr Deming had strong views on inspection: he argued that it was always unreliable and harmful. Quality is built into the process; if the process is right, then assessment is embodied in the action, which is itself the result of school-based curriculum planning. The slow school can only be built that way. External inspection can lead to faulty judgments, and responding to them amounts to tampering with a system that already works well. Teacher morale falls, and the result is a steady decline in morale and commitment. One might, indeed, describe it as coasting to failure.

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