Standards, Attainment and Achievement – Can We Be Clear What We’re Talking About?

Consider this powerful and shocking headline from a recent newspaper article:

Schools ‘face talent drain’ as morale of teachers dives:

Poll shows thousands are thinking of quitting as former Ofsted chief warns of widespread disillusionment

By Daniel Boffey

Morale among state school teachers is at “rock bottom”, according to a former chief inspector of schools, who speaks out as unions warn that a “perfect storm” of government meddling threatens an exodus of talent from the profession.

Christine Gilbert, who resigned as head of Ofsted last year, said there was evidence of widespread disillusionment in schools despite the level of teacher professionalism being “better than ever”.

Her comments come as a survey from the biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, reveals that nearly half of its 230,000 members have considered quitting in the last year, amid a collective crisis of confidence in the profession.

More than a third said that they did not believe they were respected as professionals and half said their job satisfaction had declined in the last year.

The pressure on teachers includes tougher targets, a new Ofsted grading system and the possibility of regional and performance-related pay.

The unions and Labour also claimed that a “drip, drip of denigration” from the government and the new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who replaced Gilbert, was a primary cause of the problem.


So let’s be clear about this. Thousands of decent and capable teachers and headteachers are seriously thinking of quitting, and may well do so, as and when alternative careers seem possible or available.

The ‘denigration’ revolves, as ever, around ‘Standards’. Educational ‘standards’. Are ‘standards’ as high as they ought to be?

What does this word actually mean?

We ask this question because according to so many in education and in government these days, it appears there is only one set of standards in schools – the standard of attainment.

When people talk about “raising standards”, they usually mean raising attainment in timed tests in literacy and numeracy. Also – the bizarre English Baccalaureate is “attained”.

The dictionary definition of standards is “a norm by which other things may be judged, an average, an agreed moral or ethic, something of a common size or form . . . ”

We’ll say this one more time – 3Di is strongly in favour of children doing well in high stakes tests, as long as they’re not unduly pressurised to do so, as long as the curriculum isn’t narrowed down, as long as the school doesn’t just teach to the tests. The evidence from Finland shows that children in fact do better in exams when their education is broad, balanced, and tailored to their individual needs.

Good schools have other standards, such as standards in behaviour or standards in relationships between parents, pupils and staff. In excellent schools, whether judged so by Ofsted or not, they have standards for the wellbeing of pupils; a “standard” expressed in an Act of Parliament.

In exceptional schools, that operate in a three dimensionally intelligent way, they may even have standards for staff wellbeing, knowing all too well the impact of staff mental health on both the wellbeing and achievement of pupils.

There’s another, alternative, word: achievement. But that’s for another blog.

Of course, these exceptional schools that are genuinely committed to standards in staff and pupil wellbeing may not have been graded as outstanding by Ofsted, especially if their attainment statistics don’t evidence year on year improvements, hitting specified targets, or 100% consistency in academic attainment.

There’s more to a good school than mere test and exam results, which is why it is so disheartening to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw criticising headteachers and teachers for not fully understanding what stress is.

With a speech bordering on the Pythonesque (‘Luxury! In our day we used to teach with nowt but a stick of chalk and no roof over our heads!’), he criticised the profession for making stress an excuse for poor performance, when apparently it was far more stressful to be a headteacher in the 1980s with all those militant teachers and unions demanding better conditions and recognition of the importance of their role, and it was apparently more stressful before teachers were constrained by a nationally “agreed” curriculum.

According to Wilshaw, that is.

In direct contrast, his predecessor at Ofsted suggests that teachers and headteachers are under more stress now, despite a rise in attainment – possibly as a result of yet more stringent scrutiny of their work, as developed and trialed under her watch.
The irony is staggering.

Christine Gilbert is right, however. Teachers and head teachers are stressed, and it’s not simply because of some built-in fear of Ofsted. We are all accountable for what we do: teachers are not exempt from that, and neither would they want to be.  However, it would be considerably less stressful if the accountability was firstly agreed, understood and implemented by educationalists themselves, and not by politicians or those acting on their behalf . Secondly, we are confident that teachers would be prepared to be accountable for other ‘standards’ in education, especially if it was more reliant on their professional judgment, integrity and knowledge of their children, and especially if they felt it would benefit children and young people.

Stress is an exceptionally difficult thing to cope with, and unless you have been in a classroom with thirty individuals all requiring your guidance and expertise, you can’t really comprehend the stress levels of working in a school – and that is before spending hours and hours preparing, planning, marking and grading pupils to adhere to those accountability targets.

We are not aiming to make teachers into martyrs. Every job has its stresses and there have to be levels of accountability, but the level of stress in schools, and the extent of demoralisation, should have us all worried.

It was only recently that a wonderful headteacher of an exceptional school spoke to 3Di about looking forward to retirement. How so? Because the normal stresses and strains of managing even a good school begin to have a marked effect after a while. Imagine, then,  what it feels like to be responsible for managing a school that has multiple difficulties, including having to be answerable for test and exam scores below what is deemed acceptable by the likes of Ofsted and the government. Please bear in mind that in Finland, for example, there is no Ofsted, no league tables, and no naming and shaming.

In Finland, as we have mentioned before, education is run by educationalists. Of course, there is still stress; teaching is a stressful job but the teaching profession is respected and valued, as are its views. Much of the stress for teachers in England comes from the constant change in educational expectations and the scrutiny that has never reflected the true nature of their complex work.

We need to enable teachers to teach, and we need headteachers and teachers to have the autonomy to develop the teaching and learning which they know is appropriate for their pupils.

There are widely varying views amongst headteachers and teachers as to “what works” – as there are amongst industrialists, football managers, doctors, etc. Whose view on their work do you trust the most? Someone who has done the job with a track record of success which has been sustained over many years, or a professional bureaucrat or politician?

The teaching profession needs to be free to argue within its own membership “what works”, within the broad aims of education – which also need to be debated and agreed. This is what already happens in Finland.

In fact the teaching profession in our country IS already free to have these discussions and debates. So why does it allow itself to be bullied and browbeaten over “standards”? Why is it so incapable of standing up for itself and resisting what several different governments have inflicted on it over several decades? Lack of collegiality? Fear? Surely not apathy?

Who will now lead the teaching profession to a position of greater self-respect and greater resistance to untoward pressure and denigration? It’s a sad day when the likes of Christine Gilbert is seen to be one of its sole high-profile advocates and defenders. All the same, thank you, Ms Gilbert, for speaking truth to power.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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