The Row About Pupil Progress

Looking for the positives in last week’s row about pupil progress in secondary schools and ‘value added’ in KS3 & KS4 – we think there may be a few of them. At the very least there should now be a growing circle of parents, teachers and others who understand that Ofsted is not the benign and apolitical organisation it purports to be, and that its data-driven approach is utterly bankrupt as a means of assessing the effectiveness of secondary schools. [Note: in this particular blog we don’t talk about school “performance”. Schools do not ‘perform’ – not in any sense of the word.]

With regard to the issue of poor teaching, repetition of learning and slow progress by many pupils in Y7 and Y8 – we’ve know for decades that this is a problem. So tell us something we didn’t know already, Sir Michael Wilshaw. What else can we say? The schools that have worked hard to tackle and overcome these issues have much to teach those who haven’t. There’s no more that Wilshaw can add to the debate on this that hasn’t already been said a thousand times.

What Wilshaw has tried to do is to use statistics to show that secondary schools are ‘underperforming’, based entirely on the notion that students who achieved a Level 5 when they were eleven ought to achieve an A or A* at GCSE and A Level – in which case they could all be considered for admission to the “best” universities.

* Never mind that those Level 5s were only in English and Maths.
* No matter that GCSEs are a completely different kind of test to KS2 SATs.
* No matter that a lot of those Level 5 students were artificially over-coached through constant repetition of practice tests to perform above their true ability when seen in non-test settings. [Most Year 7 teachers are more than aware of this.]
* No matter that a great many teenagers are resistant to constant cramming throughout their secondary years in order to maintain their “performance” in tests.
* No matter that many teenagers – the very able as well as the less able – become turned off education as a result of having little or no say in the curriculum, no personalisation of their learning, and few if any creative opportunities. (Not to mention becoming less interested in education than in other teenage pursuits.)

The most shocking thing about Sir Michael’s interview on Radio 4’s Today programme was his admission that his last school, Mossbourne Academy, achieved so many A and A* passes as a result of keeping students in school till 7 or 8 o’clock in the evenings and insisting they come in on Saturdays for additional cramming. They were also brought back into school during ‘holiday’ times.  It’s not entirely clear whether students ‘volunteered’ to do this, whether they were coerced into it by teachers and/or parents, or whether the general culture of the school resulted in a kind of mass brainwashing that normalised this sort of behaviour.

MossbourneEither way, there’s no doubt that Sir Michael thought he was doing those students a great service, just as many of us are entitled to think that this is no way to ‘educate’ this and future generations – brainwashing them (and us) into believing that a B grade is effectively a failure, and that it doesn’t matter that young people have very little life outside of school. Presumably Sir Michael thinks all schools should copy the Mossbourne approach to extending the school day, and indeed the school week, and school year.

This, then is the real cause of ‘grade inflation’ – the determination of schools to cram their pupils ‘by any means necessary’ in the name of high attainment. And for what? A few hours of exams in which they regurgitate ‘facts’ that will be, for the most part, instantly forgotten. And, of course, the chance of a place at a ‘Russell group’ university, apparently.

Need we say more? About an all-round education for all of the intelligences? About young people’s rights to a proper childhood and adolescence? About promoting creativity and self-directed learning?

The irony in this situation is that the data shows Y6 Level 4 students often doing better at GCSE and A Level than their Level 5 peers. What on earth does this mean?

Mainly, that it’s a gross deception that Y6 Level 5 students will or should do best at 16+ and 18+ – the ones who do best are almost always the ones who enjoy learning for its own sake and are more independent, ambitious and self-directed in their learning. Many of the children crammed to Level 5 have no concept of self-directed learning. Let’s see Sir Michael produce data to dismiss our point of view on this.

The other key fact here is that we now understand, thanks to this furore, that according to statisticians the achievement of a Level 5 at 11+ actually predicts a ‘B’ grade (or above) and not a definite A or A*. Sir Michael messed up.

Sir Michael Wilshaw has made his reputation and has risen to HMCI as a result of running a new and purpose-built Academy school with some very able and talented hand-picked teachers who were prepared to carry out whatever practices Sir Michael and his SLT determined; Michael Gove has said very clearly he wants all schools to become academies. So why wouldn’t they want to move the goalposts, “raise the bar” and find as many ways as possible to cause comprehensive schools to fail inspections and be forced to become academies?

Will the next government do a “Woodhead” and retain Wilshaw’s services when it takes power?

Given his recent remarks in the Times about how difficult he’s finding it to cope with people criticising him – obviously something he’s not used to – will he continue for very much longer in his post? (Unlike Woodhead he’s at least been a successful headteacher, and therefore has a profession he could return to.)

WilshawWould he want to work for a completely remodelled Ofsted under a Labour-led administration? Would Labour actually abolish Ofsted and bring back the previous model of an inspectorate consisting entirely of wise and knowledgeable senior educationalists, leaving school monitoring and school improvement to federations of self-monitoring and self-moderating schools, which are in turn monitored by HMIs?

Watch this space.



Mossbourne is my local secondary school. It’s vastly over-subscribed, and it’s a school that in most respects most parents would be delighted to send their children to. Its environment for learning and its resources are outstanding.

As for its educational philosophy, readers may wish to consider this excellent essay on education that’s done to, for, or with students:


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
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Please leave a comment - and tell others about 3Di!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s