The Misleading Concept of Standards. By Professor Maurice Holt

As we know,  OFSTED is the Office for Standards in Education: but what are the standards, and where do they come from?  What distinguished body of educators defined these standards, and what exactly are they?

Answer comes there none. No trace of any statement that specifies Ofsted’s standards can be found in the literature.  Ofsted costs the equivalent of five thousand teachers’ salaries per year, but as far as public knowledge goes, its standards are a closed book.

I suggest that what Ofsted means by “standards” is simply outcomes.  The job of the inspectors is to look at the outcomes of students – the grades or marks assigned to their work, or to tests at “key stages” – and determine if the defined outcomes have been met.  It’s not really necessary to define what the outcomes are: all that matters is whether a student’s score has gone up or down.  If it has gone up, then all is well: the school is improving. If it has stayed the same, the school must try harder.  If it has gone down, it is the fault of the school and its teachers.

Our politicians are not bothered with philosophical reflections on the concept of a “standard”: we must recognise that what prevails in our schools is outcome-based education.  This is an old idea, which rarely exposes itself in such naked clarity: much safer to talk about “improving standards.” To assert that all that matters is reaching some sort of numerical target or grade in a range of subjects is to reveal a very limited view of the nature of education.  But if instead you talk about raising standards, you are on firm ground.  Who would dare to challenge such an honourable objective? I suggest the time has come to do so.

The fact that Ofsted reckons to send only one real HMI in the teams that arrive at a school  is a clear indication that Ofsted has no soaring ambitions about the concept of education.  Either a school is outcome-based or it isn’t.  Fine words about character, understanding, conceptual reasoning – they have no meaning in the Ofsted vocabulary.  Only outcomes matter.

This is of course the analogy with fast food that flashed into Carlo Petrini’s mind when he invented the notion of slow food.  Because once you decide that an organisation should be driven by  process rather than by outcomes, you have to start thinking about what you are doing and why . This completely changes the nature of the learning encounter, and also the structure of the school.  Concepts  like “senior management team” now become “curriculum study group.” Fat chance!

And this is where Deming comes in:  Once Ford understood that building cars was a process and not just a series of routines, quality improved.  My favourite Ford story is when one of its senior managers went to Japan to see how  they built quality into the assembly line.  Amazed by its smooth operation, yet applying variation to each successive vehicle, he turned to his guide and asked, “Where did you learn to do this? “ And the Toyota  manager replied, “We learned it at the Rouge.”  When Toyota engineers had visited Ford’s enormous plant on the Rouge river, years before, they saw how it could be transformed – because they had eyes to see: fortune favours the prepared mind.  Ofsted only offers its own confused mind: the sooner it is liquidated, the better.                                                                                         

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