I recently read two online news media articles, both reporting on a discussion paper published by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)i – a professional body “which represents 22,000 members in the UK”ii – in which they call for “the overall four-grade inspection judgement for schools [to] be dropped immediately.”iii The four grades referred to are those given to schools in England by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) after they have carried out inspections on the schools. Each inspected school receives a single grade of “outstanding,” “good,” “requires improvement” or “inadequate.”ii The articles both continue by reporting that the ASCL’s rationale for making this demand is that “Graded judgments are a woefully blunt tool with which to measure performance.”ii,iii
They are indeed.
The person making that statement, Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, goes on to say that such grades fail “to account for the different circumstances under which schools operate.”ii,iii
Yes, that is certainly one of their great failings, and in their discussion paper the ASCL makes a strong argument for abandoning such graded assessments of schools.i Whilst I fully appreciate their point, I cannot help but be struck by the obvious irony of the fact that this criticism is being levelled at the assessments being made of schools, while it is being expressed by an organisation representing those very people who are upholding and administering exactly the same type of graded assessments which are being made within schools. In England, subject-specific GCSEs, which are taken at around age 16, are graded by number (9 –1, highest to lowest, with grades 4 and above considered as passing grades). AS and A Levels, which are also subject-specific, are taken at around ages 17–18 and are graded by letter: AS Levels are graded A–E, highest to lowest, for passing grades; A Levels are graded A*–E, highest to lowest for passing grades. Different English examination boards use different ways of indicating the failing grade for these exams, with the letters F (fail), N (near-pass) and U (unclassified) being used.
Returning to Geoff Barton, he continues by stating that such “negative judgments come with huge stigma attached and create a vicious circle that makes improvement more difficult.”ii Again, he is relating this to the assessment of schools, but within the English education system, nowhere is that vicious circle more evident than with the English and Mathematics GCSE examinations. A passing grade in both Maths and English at GCSE is required for almost all types of employment or higher education in England. However, there is a whole swathe of people in the country who have now been recognised as “The Forgotten Third”iv – the third of all adults who, as school students, sat, and failed, one or both of these exams, and who were therefore obliged to re-sit them, but who failed them again, and who tried again, and failed again… Many of these “forgotten” adults are now struggling through their lives with the “huge barriers to engagement”iv caused by that vicious circle of failure.
The ASCL suggests in its discussion paper a preferred alternative to graded assessments of schools; this should be “a narrative description of the school or college’s strengths and weaknesses in each area [which] would give … a more nuanced understanding of the school or college’s effectiveness.”i, p.7 This sounds like an excellent starting point for real, valuable change to school assessments which would then offer genuine insights.
Taking their whole argument together, I wonder how that would work as a recommendation for making a similar change to assessments within schools? A simple substitution exercise (read “students” for “schools”) results in the following:
“Graded judgments are a woefully blunt tool with which to measure performance” which fail “to account for the different circumstances under which students operate.” Such “negative judgments come with huge stigma attached and create a vicious circle that makes improvement more difficult;” the preferred alternative is therefore “a narrative description of the student’s strengths and weaknesses in each area [which] would give … a more nuanced understanding of the student’s effectiveness*.”
Sounds good to me.
* The word “effectiveness” is of course not suitable in the context of assessing students; words such as “work,” “abilities” and “performance” – or possibly all three of them – would be preferable. But I also wonder what is meant by a school’s “effectiveness,” and what definition(s) would be used to assess that? I feel another blog coming on…
- ASCL. (2023, January). The future of inspection: An ASCL discussion paper.
- Weale, S. (2023, January 20). Heads call for end to ‘blunt’ Ofsted ratings in inspections overhaul. The Guardian. Guardian Media & News Ltd.
- Roberts, J. (2023, January 20). Call for Ofsted school grades to be axed ‘immediately’. Tes. Tes Global Ltd.
- Sims, S. (2020, November 5). Adult basic skills: Building back better [Panel discussion]. English, maths and ESOL annual conference, Learning and Work Institute.
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