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)

10 thoughts on “Get rid of “Outstanding” for good.

  1. Liam

    Grades serve a purpose when it comes to simplifying the analysis of of the schools position, wrt it’s effectiveness at doing its job, at a given point in time. This can then be compared against at a later point in time. Ultimately the effectiveness of the individual teacher is the crucial measure as the effectiveness of the school is the sum of that. SLTs role is to support and enable teachers to be as effective as possible – to create the conditions in which all can excel.
    The teacher effectiveness is measured based on actual learning outcomes, ie this teacher has moved the class from x grade/level to y over the year and we consider that to be a 1/2/3/4 grading. It is not subjective and cannot be influenced by an “off-day”. The criteria used for this should be transparent from the outset, and yes monitoring of the bigger picture by line managers will include observations, planning and book scrutiny. It is teachers and line managers who know the whole picture, heads only want a simplified version as do governors and numbers make that possible.
    The only place I really disagree with you significantly is that some teachers will never be as effective as we need them to be and so should not be a teacher in the first place. This is true of all professions and a caring school will help that person to realise that and find the correct path forward. Not all people realise this independently and find their own way out, and many get trapped a few years down the line regretting their choice and living a miserable existence as a result (seen it too many times, it’s not fair on anyone).
    Finally, my concern about much of the fervour around these issues is that it seems to stem from poorly led schools where slt disingenuously use ofsted as the reason for some of their shoddy systems and decisions when there are many other ways to do this more effectively and supportively.
    Grades are not public and I only share if people want to know, otherwise our discourse is solely focused on how the kids are doing and what are/can we do to move them forward.
    Finally finally (promise), I’m no fan of ofsted but it’s always been around in my time and I assume yours too. If it were done away with there would be another scrutiny board and rightly so, we all have to be accountable for our efforts – which includes recognising the great work done as well as identifying issues.

    1. trudgeteacher

      “The teacher effectiveness is measured based on actual learning outcomes, ie this teacher has moved the class from x grade/level to y over the year and we consider that to be a 1/2/3/4 grading. It is not subjective and cannot be influenced by an “off-day”. The criteria used for this should be transparent from the outset, and yes monitoring of the bigger picture by line managers will include observations, planning and book scrutiny.”

      Sorry but this is subjective and your problem is one of sample size. When looking at expected progress you are going to use an aggregated average (you are also using levels with all the question marks around what that means in terms of learning). In doing so you cannot know how much progress each individual student should actually be expected to make, since some maybe making more than average progress, but it could be that they should be make even more. I can’t cite evidence but I’m pretty sure it is well established that more able kids make more progress than less able ones.

      I fear you have merely created a system that allows you to put a number by an individual to make your judgements appear more ‘objective’. As such you are sidestepping the blog’s strong points, or worse falling back into them. You could use the data to ‘flag’ up potential issues and there will be extreme cases which are consistently very poor ( but you shouldn’t need data to identify those classrooms if your managers are doing their job properly). I’d argue that having a more qualitative approach focussing on and clearly identified (ideally from/with the teacher) areas to try and improve.

  2. Nick

    Really intelligent and thought out views thanks for this! I agree with lots of what you say, in particular that teachers should not be labelled wholesale based on performance in lesson observations – but there needs to be some kind of system in place to work as a comparative between different schools and that is the reason for the four grade system. Perhaps it shouldn’t have such fixed adjectives for each of the grades? But I think on occasions it is fine to use the word outstanding – that piece of work was outstanding; that lesson was outstanding, as long as it is used correctly – when something stands out. I just think restricting to four words/phrases is restrictive and unhelpful.

    I am in full agreement with Liam though. Where there is a capability issue, where a teacher has had (dare I say it?) outstanding mentoring, coaching, feedback and support and they are still failing to get results that are (again can I use this word?) adequate, then it needs to made clear to them that this is not necessarily the career for them. On Twitter earlier someone made the point that this needs to be done earlier on, and I completely agree, but universities and ITT providers need to be far more stringent in what they are looking for in a teacher and quicker to act when someone is not reaching the required standard. The problem is, this is easier said than done, particularly in the maths and science subjects where there is still a shortage of applicants and some schools have to just ‘take what they can get’. That’s a terrible place to be in and until teaching is seen with the respect of other professions and paid in a comparable way, it’s going to contribute to be a problem. The phrase vicious circle springs to mind, but that is another conversation completely I guess…!!

  3. Ian Lynch

    I can remember observing a few outstanding lessons. What made them outstanding? The fact I still remember them from hundreds of others more than 15 years later. I remember a black boy, looked a bit like Mike Tyson, conducting a gospel choir session in a really tough inner London school. Brilliant singing in harmony from a bunch of written off kids. For me an outstanding lesson conducted by an outstanding human being. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean formal identification of outstanding lessons is a good thing. But if we are denying that a lesson or a teacher can be outstanding why are we grading pupils routinely in GCSEs and A levels and filtering the really outstanding ones to go to Oxbridge? Am I the only one that sees this as just a tad hypocritical?

    1. trudgeteacher

      Only hypocritical if based on similar assessment criteria. If you set exams for teachers and they answered all the questions correctly then would they be outstanding. Problem is less with grading and more the lack of genuinely objective measures for quality of teaching, that and putting such high stakes on these gradings. When people say “I can’t tell you what an outstanding lesson is, but you know one when you see it,” I think that encapsulates the problem.

  4. Lucy

    I wonder whether we are at risk of ‘labelling the labels’ and blaming them for the sometimes superficial nature of observations etc. in our pursuit of more detailed, individualised and longer-term constructive feedback? It seems to me that whilst grading systems might sometimes be used as a simplified way of providing feedback, this would only be the case where the purposes of observation were unclear among the SLT and school community as a whole; you could no doubt get rid of the four-point grading system but be no better off than you started. If we really want qualitative feedback, surely working really hard on what that looks like and how we share it is the central goal – over time this might mean more schools deciding that certain gradings or labels could be modified or removed, but that isn’t an end in itself or guarantee of high-quality support and development for teachers I don’t think.

  5. Ian Lynch

    @trudgeteacher It is a matter of principle not detail. If it is OK to test and grade children (and indeed other people at work) why is it not OK to test and grade teachers? The validity of the method is detail to be decided to suit context. Maths exams are different for children than English exams, the point is they both assess and grade them. Exams test primarily how good children are at the exam not how good they are at a subject any more than observing teachers in sample lessons directly determines how good they are at teaching over a whole year or more. All of assessment is about sampling that we hope correlates with something beyond the assessment itself. There are plenty of arguments that exams for children do more harm than good just as there are for the assessment of teachers. You need to convince the tax paying public and it seems to me that since they are unconvinced of the arguments for not examining children they are unlikely to be convinced by arguments from teachers not to examine them. Where you might have a chance is in coming up with an alternative and better method, but not likely you will succeed in blanket abolition.

    @Lucy, the age old dilemma of formative vs summative assessment. If it’s primarily formative do it privately and honestly. If it is summative its about accountability, transparency and the confidence of external impartial verification. That is then a different kettle of fish. One way round this would be to use the teaching standards to verify basic competence formatively without grading. Then use external sampling to verify that and grade summatively.


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