Get rid of “Outstanding” for good.

Not long ago, it felt like everything in an English school could be Outstanding. Your marking could be outstanding. Your relationship with the kids. Your lesson planning. Your data. A lesson. Part of a lesson. A single activity. Your haircut. You, as a whole.

Now it seems Outstanding is getting squeezed from both sides. There seems to be widespread acceptance that there’s no such thing as a stand-alone outstanding lesson – and certainly not an outstanding 20-minutes-of-a-lesson. We also all clamour to say there’s no such thing as an outstanding teacher.

So if we can’t call an individual lesson outstanding, or a teacher in general outstanding, where does that leave our precious four point grading system?

Nowhere, you might think. Yet we still find some school leaders clambering to find a way. They reveal ever more complicated, multi-variate models of judgement, drawing on data, student voice, book scrutinies, observations and the kitchen sink to give a grade.

Why are we so desperate to cling onto these labels? What purpose is served by giving someone an adjective from a four point scale for anything?

As far as I can see, headteachers could have three justifications:

  1. “So teachers know how good they are”
  2. “So I know who my bad teachers are, so I can get rid of them” (I think they call this “accountability”)
  3. “So I know who needs help so I can support them most effectively”

I’m unconvinced by all three.

So teachers know how good they are. 

There’s an easy answer to that, for every teacher: “not as good as they could be”. The only thing a teacher needs to know is “what is the very next thing I could change to improve?”.

The four-point scale is a spectacularly poor proxy for this. At best, it tells you “a lot” if you get inadequate or requires improvement, “a bit” if you get good, and “hardly anything” if you get outstanding.

We know giving a grade alongside formative comments is destructive for our pupils, so why are we so happy to do it to teachers? Scrap any sort of grade and give frequent, low-stakes, next step feedback.

So I know who my bad teachers are, so I can get rid of them (I think they call this “accountability”)

I believe every teacher can improve. I also believe that getting rid of our weakest teachers is no route to improving our education system.

If I were a headteacher, the people I’d want rid of are the ones who aren’t trying. 

I suppose you could argue things like book scrutinies are proxies for trying: has the teacher bothered to mark work in the last 3 months? But there are inevitable problems with this approach. What if they’re overworked and drowning, and need help, not capability measures? What if they’ve been diligently making exit tickets and weekly formative tests, but there’s no evidence of that in the books? A four-point grading system is too crude to be useful.

Instead of using a poor proxy, decide on what you can expect from all staff, no matter their experience, strengths and weaknesses. Then call them out on it when they don’t do it. I’m talking about simple things that tell you whether they’re making the effort. Do they turn up on time? Turn up at all? Follow school policies? Mark work? Set homework? Behave professionally with colleagues? Read to improve their subject knowledge? Reflect on their practice? Try to improve?

If you’re still not happy for them to teach in your school when they do all that, I think you need to review the strength of your whole-school systems for behaviour, the workload on teachers, and the quality of support from middle/senior management.

So I know who needs help so I can support them most effectively

There are a multitude of reasons why someone might get a bad grade. Some problems are easy for the teacher to fix without any external input. Hell, sometimes it’s just because the teacher was having a bad day. Some are much harder. Some need a short, sharp dose of support from the right person. Some need intensive support over a longer period. A catch-all “requires improvement” or “unsatisfactory” doesn’t help SLT in providing genuine support to cover the range of needs staff will have.

All senior leaders need to know is

  1. What do teachers need to do to improve?
  2. How can the school help with this?
  3. Roughly how much impact will this have on the kids?

I include the last point because school resources aren’t infinite. This will tell you where you should target help much more clearly than a four-point scale ever would.  It’ll show patently that you really need to prioritise getting Miss Recently-Qualified some weekly mentoring to talk about behaviour management – because getting behaviour sorted in her classroom would have a massive impact on the children’s achievement. Get rid of the labels and the inevitable judgement that goes with them, and focus on what can change and how.

The words outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate have caused an unspeakable amount of hand-wringing and angst. We’re finally getting a little perspective on that. Rather than working desperately to carve out a space for them to remain, banish them for good.

(This post was edited at 20:26 5/7/2014 to make it clear that not all SLT are into grading. Thanks to @dan_brinton for pushback)

Go forth and opine