Six-point plan to restore public confidence in exams

Every government and every secretary of state for education want to make their mark on education policy. That means change – far too much of it for heads and teachers who are generally still implementing the last change but one as the next two come along, and too much for parents to understand it all. With new education policies more often based on politics than on evidence, and more often on a minister’s own distant experience of school than on the reality of the modern-day classroom, the changes still come thick and fast. Sadly and somewhat ironically, faced with the need to justify all this change, ministers (very near the bottom of the league table of public trust) attack and denigrate the performance of teachers (very near the top of the same league table).

For the young people going through the school system, as well as for the heads and teachers devoting their professional lives to the practical reality of government policies, this is a serious issue. As criticism after criticism is heaped on schools for doing this or not doing that, some of the mud sticks. It is not so much the reporting in the media of the ministers’ views; it is much more the assumptions that underlie the newspaper editorials – the same uninformed assumptions that create in the public mind a lack of confidence in what is happening in education.

Nowhere is this more dangerous than in exams, where constant criticisms by ministers and the media have undermined public confidence in the legitimate achievements of young people. From Rhodes Boyson to Nick Gibb, the August doom mongers have too often sent a message to 16 and 18 year olds – your efforts are barely worth the paper they are written on. It is nothing short of disgraceful that exam success is undermined in this way.

We need to restore public confidence in exams – and it can be done with the following six-point plan.

  1. Strengthen Ofqual

Ofqual’s warning about the English Baccalaureate Certificate in December 2012 was critical in persuading Michael Gove that he needed to withdraw the qualification. In a letter to the secretary of state, the chief regulator stated: “the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment”; “EBCs will be significantly less reliable in the technical sense”; and expressing her concern at “introducing completely new qualifications and removing provider competition at the same time”. In her letter to the secretary of state on 6 February 2013 on the latest GCSE reforms, she states: “If problems arise, Ofqual would, if necessary, delay the reforms.”

Michael Gove is thankfully not going ahead with his aim of having only one awarding organisation for each major GCSE subject, but if there is a legitimate fear that competition between awarding bodies creates “a race to the bottom” in standards (which I don’t accept), then Ofqual could be given more powers, licensing awarding bodies for each subject at each level and removing that licence for a specific subject if the awarding body does not uphold standards in it. The strength of the power would be in its existence rather than its frequent use, I suspect.

2. Professionalise the exams workforce

The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), which I chair, is embarking on a major programme of training of awarding body senior staff and examiners, at the end of which successful examiners will be accredited with Full Membership or Fellowship of the Institute.

It may surprise the general public to know that hitherto there has been no accredited training for senior examiners, who become chief examiners when others retire. The awarding organisations are now seeing that their workforce needs professionalising – an important component of guaranteeing the standards and quality of the examinations process. With its professional framework and code of practice, the CIEA is well placed to play its part in the professionalisation of the assessment workforce.

Then, three years on, Full Membership or Fellowship of the CIEA could, and should, become a licence to practise as a senior examiner

3. Clarify the purpose of each examination and assessment

The need to re-cast the relationship between testing and examinations on one hand and accountability on the other arises mainly because of the confusion that has arisen over the purposes of each test, with each result being used to judge the success of the student, the school and the national system of education. Some sense has come this week with the announcement in the consultation that the national system will be monitored by sampling, as used to be the case with the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) until it was vandalised by Mrs Thatcher.

It is also welcome that, as I have long advocated, the threshold measure for school success of five good GCSE passes is to be replaced by the average points score of best eight GCSEs, including English and maths. All threshold measures create perverse incentives and, while grade C in English and maths is a good incentive, five grade Cs encouraged gaming. The only worthwhile incentive is one to reward schools for raising the achievement of all its students and average points score of best eight GCSEs comes nearest to that.

These are sensible steps on the road to greater clarity about the purpose of each assessment.

4. Re-affirm that examination grades are criterion-referenced

The debate in autumn 2012 on English GCSE grades brought into the open the way in which statistical analysis is used to determine grade boundaries and there was more than a hint of norm-referencing in the process.

Most people thought that, since Keith Joseph changed the system in 1984, exam grades have been criterion-referenced – with each grade reflecting a pre-determined level of performance, not a proportion of the cohort.

A thoroughly trained assessment workforce – in schools, colleges and awarding organisations – should know what level of work represents a grade A, what represents a grade C, and so on.

We need to re-affirm that grades are criterion-referenced and stick to professional judgement without statistical manipulation.

5. Re-calibrate points score equivalence

The current government has done its best to abolish points score equivalence of different qualifications. It is true that the system has been abused in the past – a GNVQ in IT was never worth the four GCSEs that enabled it to scoop the market for several years. The problem there, and with some other qualifications, was with the specific equivalence accorded to a course, not with the system of equivalence as a whole.

If equivalences were to be recalibrated, schools and colleges would offer a broader range of courses, safe in the knowledge that their students’ efforts would be properly credited.

6. Reform examinations by evolution, not revolution

The debacle over the EBCs has shown present and future secretaries of state that qualifications reform – something of a plaything for ministers in the past – can backfire if you try to do too much too quickly. Public confidence in qualifications suffers badly when ministers cry rubbish about exams that are taken by hundreds of thousands of young people every year in an effort to justify the introduction of their next wheeze.

In his Social Market Foundation speech on 5 February, Michael Gove stated: “We are clearing away the outdated and counterproductive assessment methods of the past.” On 7 February he announced that he proposed to reintroduce assessment methods of the past. Debate about what will improve the assessment system should surely be better than this.

Evolution, not revolution, is the way forward for exams reform, with the government and profession working together to introduce evidence-based improvements where they are agreed to be necessary.

These A-level reforms mustn’t happen

January 23 was a good day to bury bad news. And make no mistake, the proposed reform of A-levels is very bad news indeed. With the prime minister making his much-trailed speech on Europe, there was much less coverage than there would have been on a lighter news day, although the A-level news story still made some headlines.

It is not just that it is another step backwards for the English examinations system, but it is a step backwards to a model that didn’t work. It is as if Michael Gove has decided to sell his smooth-running Jaguar and replace it with a second-hand Trabant.

A-level is a success story. It may not distinguish as well as it used to between the very good and the excellent student, but there is other evidence that universities can use to do that. It was invented in 1951 to be taken by about 7 per cent of the 18 year olds in the country. 62 years later, like the Jaguar car, it is a somewhat different model, now being taken by half the cohort, but, just as the Jaguar still carries the aura of its marque, so A-level is still recognisable as a high-level qualification and is known in many countries as a model assessment for 18 year olds.

The ‘vertical’ AS-level, introduced by Keith Joseph to broaden post-16 academic studies, was never popular and had a low take-up, mainly because two vertical AS-levels, although counting for the same UCAS points as one A-level, involved a lot more work and were not a good way to prise open the doors of the most selective universities.

I remember talking to Ron Dearing about this when he was conducting his post-16 review for secretary of state Gillian Shephard in the mid-1990s. “You need to abolish the vertical AS-level and introduce a horizontal AS as a half-way house to A-level,” I told him. “Write a paper for me, John,” was Dearing’s response. My voice was one among many at the time advocating this course of action, which, when implemented soon afterwards, greatly improved the A-level system, with 16 year olds now able to make a one-year decision on what to study and typically, after a year doing four subjects, making a further decision a year later on which three subjects to pursue to full A-level. Unsurprisingly, students often did not do the three subjects in year 13 that they would have chosen as their A-levels if they had been forced to make a two-year decision at 16. And the pass rate at A-level improved to the point where there were very few outright failures, not because A-levels were too easy, but because students had been able to give up at 17 the subject(s) that they were likely to fail.

The move back to a vertical AS-level is a retrograde step.

Six modules were too many, but four-module A-level courses have barely been tried before ministers have decided that modules are inherently bad, with no solid evidence base for their decision. Junior minister Elizabeth Truss was quoted as saying that modules encourage a ‘learn and forget’ approach to studying. In my experience as a teacher, that is exactly what terminal examinations encourage, especially among boys.

As with the so-called English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC), the government has succeeded in uniting a very wide group of stakeholders in opposition to the A-level reforms – the CBI, the University of Cambridge, heads of state and independent schools. The Cambridge University reaction was particularly telling, saying that it would make their task of selecting 18 year olds more difficult and that the reforms would reduce social mobility.

Both the A-level reforms and the EBC proposals are wrong in principle and practice, when what is needed is an overarching qualification for 18 year olds that summarises a broad range of their achievements. A-levels, AS-levels and GCSEs can be part of that solution, as can technical and vocational qualifications, which are being dangerously downgraded.

Let us hope that Michael Gove’s missionary zeal to reform every corner of our education system (as some of his predecessors have tried to do too) will take him not just to Finland, Sweden and the Far East, but on a road to Damascus.

Eight education policy priorities

After two years of Gove-driven education policy, with the rest of the education world frozen like rabbits in the full-beam headlights of his reforms, it feels as if other voices are starting to find themselves at last. In recent weeks we have had Andrew Adonis’s book Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools; the thoughts of six education thinkers in a Guardian blog on 2015 and beyond: what’s next for school reform? at; some mainly secondary head teachers emerging as a coherent group on twitter; and an article from United Learning chief Jon Coles arguing why the education profession must have a Royal College of Teaching at

Many of the themes in these pieces touch on policies that I advocated in my years as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and which ASCL continues to articulate now. Taken together, I firmly believe that they form the basis for a better education system for all young people.

1.    Focus on teaching and learning

David Blunkett’s  four-year term as education secretary was unique in two ways: first, stating that his policies would be about ‘standards not structures’, and second, focusing on primary schools, whereas most education policy relates to secondary education.

With so much policy change over so many years, being head of a secondary school has been described as being like captaining a ship in a storm without compass or map, or doing a 1000-piece jigsaw with no picture on the box.

In fact, what this has enabled good heads to do is to decide on their own school’s priorities, ignore most government policy announcements and focus relentlessly on the quality of teaching and learning.

As Robert Hill points out in his Guardian blog as part of 2015 and beyond, Professor John Hattie points the way in Visible learning (2008) to proven strategies for making learning more effective.

A values-led approach to school leadership is underscored by the moral purpose of raising the life chances of every young person in the school and, increasingly, by the wider moral purpose of working with other schools for the good of all young people in the area.

It must have at its heart the first point in Andrew Adonis’s manifesto – a new deal for teachers that makes every school a learning community for both adults and children, led by excellent hub schools in each area.

2.    Under fives and parenting classes

Spending my whole career in the secondary sector, I have always argued for resources for secondary schools, but it is well proven that the job of secondary and primary schools would be easier if governments recognised that, in terms of bangs for your bucks, investment in early years and in parenting classes for parents of newborn children do more for social mobility than anything else.

3.    A whole education for all young people

At a time when the education of too many young people is being narrowed to what was called the ‘paying subjects’ under the dreadful Revised Code in the mid-19th century, it has never been more important to fight for a fully rounded education for all young people. Increasingly, the case that we make for that at Whole Education ( is being recognised by school leaders and put into practice in our pathfinder schools. Come to Whole Education’s third annual conference ( on 21 November and find out.

Whole Education drives a coach and horses through the knowledge/skills debate by stating clearly that a fully rounded education has to be both/and, not either/or, for every young person.

4.    A Better Bac

Andrew Adonis has advocated an A-level Bac and a Tech Bac, which has also been put forward by Kenneth Baker of the Baker Dearing Trust to recognise the achievements of students in the emerging university technical colleges.

Michael Gove’s English Bac of five subjects at GCSE, potentially to be extended to an English Bac Certificate to replace GCSEs, is a set of reforms too far and is aimed at the wrong target.

What is needed, as Tim Brighouse points out in the 2015 and beyond blog is a radical re-think that recognises that few young people (and even fewer in future) leave education at 16, so we no longer need a big examination industry for 16 year olds, but, as a Green Paper of about eight years ago stated, tests at 16 should be a ‘progress check’, not a terminal exam.

Then we could have a proper bac at 18, with the different levels proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson, as a summative qualification – not separate A-bac and tech-bac, but a single over-arching qualification that is greater than the sum of its parts, incorporating A-levels, GCSEs and vocational assessments, with a common core of essential knowledge and skills. This Better Bac would be a fitting qualification to sum up the achievements of young people who have received a whole education and deserve to be accredited for it.

5.    A national network of chartered assessors

One of the forgotten recommendations of the Tomlinson report was that in-course assessment should be increased in importance as part of external qualifications and, to enable this to be done with validity and credibility, there should be a national network of chartered assessors – senior professionals externally accredited to carry out internal and external assessment to national standards.

This is at the heart of the work of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors ( ), which works with awarding organisations, Ofqual, schools and colleges, as well as professional organisations outside education, to raise the professionalism of the assessment process, once memorably described by Dr Ken Boston, newly arrived in the UK in 2002 as head of the qualifications authority, as a ‘cottage industry’.

With a network of chartered assessors across the country, greater reliance could be placed on in-course assessment as a component of qualification grades and the exam bill faced by school and colleges could be considerably reduced from the present £600million.

6.    Intelligent accountability

Part of the problem for the examinations system is that it often seems as if it is designed first for accountability and second for learning. Schools need a balance of pressure and support but, while pressure through accountability is overdone, there has never been a strategic approach to support.

Intelligent accountability would ensure that the aims of schools were sensibly reflected in accountability measures. Perverse incentives, such as that created by the five A*-C GCSE measure to concentrate on the C/D borderline with no credit given for getting pupils from B to A or from E to D, should be avoided. Threshold measures, such as this or the E-Bac, are bound to create perverse incentives.

The intelligent role for accountability is to stimulate improvement, not shout ‘Rubbish’ from the safety of a London office. Where performance measures indicate that the school is starting to slip, or where the school itself is concerned that it is not performing as well as it would like in certain areas, support mechanisms should be triggered at an early stage.

7.    Strong school networks

At that point, the National College for School Leadership or a local commissioner would broker support from one of the many centres of excellence locally that would be on a database of good practice.

Both the Labour and Coalition governments have recognised the work of the National College and have acknowledged that the expertise in school improvement lies within the school system itself. Both have made school-to-school support into the school improvement policy of first choice. That is as it should be, but it needs a better database to enable it to draft in the right kind of support as quickly as possible.

8.    An evidence base for education policy

Using proven good practice to improve the work of schools is one way in which evidence of what works is used, but this is rarely replicated in government policy making, which is too often based on political dogma rather than well-researched evidence. The Sutton Trust has a fine record in trying out new ideas and then scaling up what works; if only central government adopted the same approach!

The Centre for Evidence Based Education at York University has made a good start in this field and its work will be developed in the proposed Education Media Centre, which will provide journalists with more solid information on which to base their stories, and the Office for Education Improvement, an idea put forward by Stephen Twigg, which I am researching, to feed evidence into the policy making process.

The Prince’s Teaching Institute plans for a Royal College of Teaching will have evidence gathering as part of its role. Just as people would not want to go to a doctor who doesn’t keep up to date by reading The Lancet, so the practice of teaching must become better informed by research and evidence.

With a stronger base of evidence, the debate about the direction of education policy in England would open a new chapter. There are welcome signs that this is starting to happen.

If we need GCSE at all, let’s put more faith in teacher assessment

As a coda to my blog on the debate about GCSE grading, here are three points about GCSE reform.

First, at a time when the participation age is being raised to 18, England needs to move to an overarching baccalaureate as a summary of educational achievement at 18 and reduce the extent of the external examinations for 16 year olds. The age-relatedness of exams at 16 is all about accountability and does not suit a good proportion of young people.

Second, with the new GCSE aiming for all students, if it is to be fit for the needs of 21st century employers, it is important that it should be criterion-referenced at each grade and not norm-referenced.

Third, all external qualifications – but especially those at GCSE level – should place more reliance on teacher assessment, moderated by a national network of chartered assessors.

Chartered assessors are experienced teachers, externally accredited to carry out assessment, both internal and external, to national standards.

With the increase in the amount of evidence thus available to assess the achievement of candidates, examination grades would become more reliable, with properly moderated teacher assessment included as part of the grade.

When A-levels and O-levels were introduced in 1951, it was fully intended that they should be phased out as teachers gained greater experience of assessment at these levels. But this never happened.

True, the coursework element of exams grew and external moderation was introduced to maintain standards. But coursework, eventually affected by plagiarism and inadequately moderated, never reached its potential which, in the hands of good teachers, is the perfect adjunct to good teaching.

The best teacher I ever worked with, Len Rowe, used 100 per cent coursework for English for many years, maintaining that the students’ folders contained a wider range of evidence of their ability across the full range of skills in English than could be exhibited in any written examination. When political trust in coursework faded and 100 per cent coursework GCSEs were abolished in the early 1990s, Len retired at the age of 56, wanting to be no part of the new system and writing a searing letter to Lord Griffiths, then the head of the exams body, SEAC.

Coursework will continue to be used in art, technology and music. Modern languages orals and science practicals can and should use teacher assessment. We should put greater faith in the professionalism of teachers by extending coursework well beyond this, enabling the external examination system to be trimmed to a more reasonable size (and cost). But politicians score easy points by deriding the credibility of teacher assessment. To overcome that we need a system of chartered assessors – the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (which I chair) stands ready to deliver such a system.

Exam standards and the GCSE

There are several levels of significance in what has come to be known on twitter and elsewhere as the ‘GCSE fiasco’.

Of greatest importance is the significance for the individual students whose futures may be adversely affected by the GCSE grade decisions.

Then there is the significance for schools and colleges, not only in terms of league table scores but also in the entry arrangements for post-16 courses.

There is significance for teachers, whose students achieved lower grades than they predicted. For many years, the more experienced teachers have been predicting their students’ results with a good degree of accuracy – and suddenly they learn that their predictions are too high. And teachers, having worked to raise student aspirations, care about what their students have achieved too.

The current debate is significant for the government, for Ofqual, for awarding bodies and for the thousands of people who work as examiners and markers, and whose work is now being picked over.

At the root of all this, however, lies an issue that affects the way that all GCSEs and A-levels are graded and is therefore of huge significance to the future of all qualifications in England. This is the question of whether we have a criterion-referenced system – in which work of a certain standard gets the same grade every year – or a norm-referenced system – in which the number of candidates gaining each grade is kept the same each year, even if their performance is improving.

Until Keith Joseph courageously introduced criterion referencing of A-levels and O-levels in 1984, norm-referencing acted as an agent of social conservatism, keeping down the number of students at the higher grades and making it impossible to know whether schools and colleges were raising achievement year on year.

Since then we have been given to understand that the system had been operating on criterion referencing. That is to say, the number of candidates achieving each grade depended on the standard of their work, not on the proportion at each level.

Just as in 2002 when questions were raised about the grading of the then new A-levels, we now know that statistical wizardry is involved in setting grade borderlines, using the prior attainment of that cohort of candidates, i.e. any previous exam results they had obtained. At A-level, this involves the grades achieved at GCSE two years earlier by each cohort – a not unreasonable assumption of the level of intelligence of the cohort, one might think, unless of course the GCSE grades themselves were in turn based on some other less secure previous measure.

Now we know that that prior measure in question turns out to be the key stage 2 results, achieved five years earlier by each GCSE cohort. I have never been a fan of the accuracy of key stage 2 results as an indication of the ability of each 11 year old. As the foundation of the house of subsequent GCSE results, I would put that more into the category of sand than rock.

Key stage 2 tests – whatever view you might have on their robustness – do not cover speaking and listening, which is central to controlled assessment. As such, it is not sensible to use the KS2 data as predictors for performance in a GCSE that includes controlled assessment.

Regarding the letters between Ofqual and Edexcel, it is not clear how the enlarged Edexcel entry might have influenced the results. For example, the additional candidates could have been disproportionately from selective schools, which could have caused a rise in grades.

What we have at the moment is a strange mix of criterion- and norm-reference methodology. A key outcome of the Tomlinson Inquiry in 2002 was to stress the ‘professional  judgement’ of senior examiners. As such, statistics are but one element in the pointers available to awarding committees.

As a nation we are surely unique in our pre-occupation with fractions of one percentage point changes year on year, resulting in an annual media scrum each August – examining is not the exact science that the public has been led to assume.

Given the investment in education, why are we surprised by improvement? We should expect it – even demand it; the Independent Panel chaired by Eva Baker in 2002 rightly questioned the extent of surprise every August.

As ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said to the Select Committee on 11 September, “Let’s get back to what are the standards”, although this will not be easy when, as Ofqual regulator Glenys Stacey commented, there is huge turbulence in the system of GCSEs, with changes continually being made to the way that assessment takes place, making Ofqual’s job much harder, but also much more important.

As chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, I am working to develop the professionalism of those involved in the exams industry, through CIEA membership and accreditation to higher levels of professional recognition. Few workforces can have experienced more change than these people in the last 20 years, and especially in more recent times. The answer should lie not in manipulating grades, but in setting exams of comparable rigour year on year.  Examiners need to know the standards to which they are working, as do the teachers whose skill in predicting outcomes and potential helps to motivate young people to raise their aspirations.

Following Tomlinson’s inquiry in 2002, each awarding body was required to look again at the awards. The accountable officer and his staff sat with the chairs of examiners to re-examine the grades awarded. Examiners were asked if they were satisfied with the outcomes and any concerns about the awarding process. The same process, observed by outside experts, could be run again for GCSEs in 2012.

We owe it to the individual young people taking exams – much more than to the statistics behind each cohort – to make criterion referencing work properly, to be much clearer about what is a grade A and what is a grade C and to implement that consistently, through a highly professionalised assessment workforce, so that there is fairness across all subjects, all awarding bodies and over time.


Then and now: 30 years of education policy

It is 30 years ago this week that I became a head teacher in a very different education world in which, as head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, a local authority secondary school, I had a great deal of autonomy over the curriculum but almost none over finance, and very little accountability to local or national government.

Inspections rarely took place and, when they did, the reports were not published. Local authorities, supposedly ‘running’ state schools, were most interventionist on finance, staffing and minor matters, such as premises maintenance. Central government was still unsure how to exercise power over state education, with secretary of state Keith Joseph the previous year having taken over from Mark Carlisle, who had admitted he ‘knew nothing of state schools, having used them neither for myself nor my children’.

HMI was in the driving seat on curriculum policy, supported by local authority inspectors, who were more active in primary schools than in secondary, but many of whom were of very poor quality, often having fled from classrooms where they had been weak teachers. Examination boards had started making regular changes to O-level and A-level syllabuses, without government interference. Governing bodies were powerless, dominated by local authority appointees and containing few if any parents of the school.

My headship from 1982 to 1998 was neatly divided into two by the introduction of local management of schools (LMS) in 1990. I had been a ‘senior teacher’ from the inception of that role in 1974 and deputy head, both in large comprehensive schools in the north-east, so I had eight years’ experience when I was appointed to headship, a job for which no training or qualification was required, although I had been on a formative three-week management course during 1981-82. I was looking forward to becoming a head, but with great apprehension about the responsibilities. On appointment, I recall saying to the local authority senior adviser that my most important task was to ‘water the plants’, i.e. to encourage a talented staff to implement new ideas and to grow professionally, following a head with very high standards, but who had insisted on making all decisions himself and whose catchphrase was said to be ‘No’.

On the curriculum at Durham Johnston in 1982, the timetable structure was changed to enable more student choice at what would later come to be known as key stage 4, different A-level and O-level syllabuses were chosen to suit the interests and experience of a well-qualified staff, Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) mode 3 courses were designed, taught and assessed by the school itself – with some light moderation by the awarding body – to try to motivate those for whom O-level was too tough. Computers were starting to be used and taught about and GCSE was still six years away. Emphasis was placed on the quality of teaching for 11 to 14 year olds with a curriculum that prepared them for the next stage.

Up to 1990, there was some flexibility over the structure of the staff, but not much. The number of teachers and support staff and the number of responsibility posts at each grade were determined by the local authority. So I was told in February or March that the school would have, for example, 62.5 teachers, with one deputy head, two senior teachers, four teachers at grade D, ten at grade C, etc. The number and roles of the very few support staff were also centrally prescribed.

And worse was to come on staffing. During the falling rolls of the 1980s, the school was not allowed to make any appointments to teaching posts until all possibilities had been exhausted in the local authority redeployment system. As a large school that was always full, this meant taking teachers who would not have been appointed in open competition and only being able to appoint new young staff after 31 May when the best had already been snapped up elsewhere. Only by drawing up job descriptions that were very round holes was the school permitted to avoid taking the square pegs in the redeployment pool.

The school budget over which I had control was about £30,000, to be used to buy books and equipment and, increasingly, computers. There was no money for the maintenance of premises, where the school had to wait its turn as its building and decorative state deteriorated year by year. Any repairs to the building – even a broken window – had to go through the local authority and could take ages.

It is difficult to convey the extent of the change brought in by LMS  – the budget increased to over £2 million with control over the number and structure of the staff and the ability to make appointments at any time of year without compulsory recourse to redeployed staff, the opportunity to increase the number of support staff and extend their work over a wide range of roles, to decorate the school, to start an artist-in-residence scheme, to start carpeting the school (staffroom and modern languages classrooms first), and to encourage ideas with financial backing.

In 1984, HMI reports on individual school inspections started to be published and Durham Johnston was one of the first. We were given nine months’ notice of the date and a team of 20 HMIs visited the school for a week, leaving no stone unturned. On the Monday evening, I welcomed the team with a wine reception as fellow professionals helping us to improve the school. Most judged us according to our aims, some according to their preconceived idea of how a subject should be taught.

After thirty years of government fiddling with national education policy, we now have an almost continuous argument arising from the tension between raising achievement and the standard of the examinations. Until this tension is resolved in favour of raising achievement, it is difficult to see how public policy on education can sensibly move forward.

This tension is inexorably tied to the debate on accountability, which is still far from the intelligent accountability for which I first called in 2003 after Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures, A Question of Trust. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin in public service.  We have to accept that a high degree of accountability is bound to be associated with the extent of autonomy that heads have in England – as much autonomy as anywhere in the world and far more than most.

The three strongest drivers of policy in individual schools are values, finance and accountability. The values that drive those who work in education seem to me to remain as strong as ever – perhaps stronger than they have ever been, as we seek to close the gaps between the achievements of those from different backgrounds. Finance makes for some tough decisions, but is measurably far better than it was in 1982. Accountability has narrowed the curriculum for many young people, as schools concentrate on what mid-19th century educationists at the time of the Revised Code called the ‘paying subjects’, the modern equivalent of which are the key stage 2 tests for primary schools and the English baccalaureate subjects at age 16.

Then there is the ‘constant rhetoric of decline’ (Matthew Taylor, Observer, 2 Sept 2012), which has sapped teacher morale year after year. It used to be the late Rhodes Boyson who would pop up every August and complain about falling standards. Secretaries of State, goaded by certain newspapers, are often to be found at the forefront of the complainants, as they seek to create the dissatisfaction out of which they can then implement their shiny new policies and claim improvements for the credit of their party. James Callaghan started it with his Ruskin College speech in October 1976, bringing the school curriculum out of the secret garden and into the political fray, where it has been ever since.

Achievement is measurably higher in 2012 than in 1982 and much else in education has improved too, not least the work of the National College for School Leadership and the recognition that all the required expertise to improve the system lies in the schools themselves, not in Whitehall, not in local authority offices, and not in the corporate sector. Leading a school is a much more fulfilling job than it was in 1982, albeit with far more accountability and vulnerability. But it could have been so much better – the constant policy changes have diverted attention and sapped energy from school leaders and teachers. Only if a secretary of state has the courage to say that all future education policy changes will be firmly rooted in evidence will the system achieve its potential.

School improvement and the middle tier

The future role of local authorities in education, the shape of the new middle tier between central government and individual schools, and the way that school improvement is organised are all in a state of flux. These issues are inter-related and need a strategic solution, sooner rather than later, to replace the creative chaos that currently passes for government policy.

It is time that England had a planned system for supporting schools. For many years much thought has been given to accountability, with sharply targeted national inspection and increasingly detailed performance tables at the pinnacle of centrally driven accountability. No such strategic thinking has taken place on how schools should best be supported when they are in difficulty, although schemes such as the London Challenge, City Challenges, the National Challenge, National Leaders of Education (NLE) and Local Leaders of Education (LLE) have created a patchwork of support mechanisms that have generally been very effective where they have operated. However, this has been in a minority of areas and, where local authorities have been expected to fill the gap, they have often been found wanting.

The heavy hand of central government has frequently been felt by heads and governing bodies of schools that are under-performing, as ministers and officials have used direct intervention to improve results in a wide range of schools.

One of the mechanisms adopted by central government has been to ask chains of schools to take on the task of improving other schools and there have been some notable successes, as recounted in a report by Robert Hill and others for the National College, published in March 2012 at

For schools in this situation, the headquarters of the chain has become the new middle tier. In some parts of England, and all of Wales, the middle tier remains the local authority. But, for other schools – notably standalone convertor academies – the middle tier has effectively disappeared, apart from the administrative function of the Education Funding Authority (EFA).

Local authorities still have a middle tier role in the wider children’s services, but the situation has moved on rapidly from what was set out as recently as December 2010 in the government’s white paper, The Importance of Teaching ( ), and it is already difficult to see how local authorities, slimmed almost to the point of disappearance, can any longer have a leading role in school improvement. Most now have no expertise in secondary school improvement and, although some have retained a core of primary school experts, they are insufficient in number (and, often, in recent school leadership experience too) to provide a high quality school improvement service. The school improvement house must be built on something much stronger than sand.

The government appears not to have a policy on the future of the middle tier, with ‘creative chaos’ being the most complimentary term I have heard used. As ASCL general secretary, there was nothing I liked better than an empty policy vessel into which to pour ideas. I do believe that there is a good solution to the ‘middle tier’ question and it is inextricably linked with the development of a strategic school improvement system.

There are four stages to school improvement:  Identify problems in the school;  Broker solutions to the problem;  Commission people to support the school; and  Deliver the support.

Experience in recent years means that we know how to do the delivery. Expertise in school improvement lies within schools and so school-to-school support can be used to produce the necessary improvements.

Where a school has problems, the head and governing body may well not be identifying the critical issues or know where to look for the right kind of support, so identification, brokering and commissioning often require an agency beyond the school itself. As recently as 2009-10, school improvement partners (SIPs), whose role was ‘support and challenge’, did the identification and local authorities (sometimes at the behest of central government) did the commissioning. Brokering, however, has always been done haphazardly in most parts of England, through a lack of solid information on where expertise lies.

In 2012, SIPs have disappeared (except in schools that have wisely employed someone in a SIP-type role) and most local authorities no longer have the capacity to broker support or the funding to commission it. Most chains of schools are demonstrating how all four stages of the process can be done efficiently and effectively.

A successful education system, however, needs universal coverage of each part of the four-stage process. Underpinning each of the six models set out below should be a database of excellent practice on which schools can draw for advice and support. The National College, co-ordinating the network of teaching schools, trains and monitors the support activities of National Leaders of Education (NLEs), Local Leaders of Education (LLEs) and the new Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs), the latter being identified by teaching school alliances.

In addition, Ofsted has a much bigger part to play in this aspect of school improvement. It is culpable that Ofsted has, for so many years, had the biggest database of excellent practice in the country (possibly, in the world) through the evidence gained in its school inspections and surveys; yet it has never revealed the contents of this secret treasure chest of outstanding (to use its word, although excellent would be much better) practice. It has now dipped its toe into this water, but should be providing a much more comprehensive and easy-to-access database.

McKinsey research has shown that all the highly successful school systems in the world have a middle tier between central government and the individual school – and most of the jurisdictions in the McKinsey study are much smaller than England. The Department for Education cannot run 20,000 schools, so I take it as axiomatic that a middle tier should exist. The questions are: What form should it take? And should it be the same across the whole country?

Of the six options for the middle tier, two are national systems, relying on national democratic accountability for their control and two are local systems, with local democratic accountability. One proposal – local commissioners – could be either nationally or locally accountable and the sixth option is a mixture of national and local.

1. Local commissioners of schools

Rick Muir has argued in Progress for local commissioners of schools, appointed by the local authority or elected mayor. ( In his view, these appointees would commission (but not run or manage) schools in their area, including free schools and academies, and have a focus on school improvement. If schools coast or underperform, the schools commissioner would have the power to intervene, including the replacement of the head and governing body. Commissioners, Muir proposes, “would act as a mediating layer for the majority of schools that are not part of academy chains, supporting them to improve through collaboration, promoting the professional development of teachers and ensuring schools respond effectively to national policy changes. They would be responsible for making sure that the needs of all children in their area are being met.”

There could also be a system of nationally funded local area commissioners, as suggested by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, and reported in Wilshaw argued that, as more schools became academies, local commissioners are needed to help to identify problems. “I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and who believes in independence and as a great supporter of the academy programme, but we know there will be some academies that won’t do well,” he said. “It is no good just relying on Ofsted to give the judgment. By that time, it is too late. We need some sort of intermediary bodies which can detect when things aren’t going well, look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”

Sir Michael suggested that the local commissioners would report directly to the secretary of state, monitoring the performance of schools and chains in their area and bringing in other agencies where necessary.

Wilshaw’s model, which could be based on areas containing about 1000 schools each, has national democratic accountability; Muir’s model has local democratic accountability. Both are feasible options, although my preference is for the national model, as the local model would be likely to be as variable in quality across the country as local authorities have been.

2. Area HMIs

Up to the 1980s, HM Inspectorate included District Inspectors – HMIs based in areas whose job it was to make links with local authority chief education officers and to know what was happening in local schools.

A network of about 40 District HMIs could be reinvented for the 2012 context, charged with monitoring performance of schools in their area, getting to know head teachers and keeping an ear to the ground for good and bad practice in local schools.

With a truly independent Ofsted, this could provide valuable intelligence to the system, helping to spread good practice and advising Ofsted and the government on where intervention is needed at an earlier stage than tends to happen now. Their remit would cover all types of school and issues between local authorities and academies would be entirely avoided by this nationally-led system.

With Ofsted increasingly seen as an arm of government, there is a danger that the District HMIs could come to be seen as the men and women from the ministry, as their predecessors often were in the second half of the 20th century.

3. Chains of schools and/or teaching alliances

For an increasing number of schools, the central office of a chain of schools is their middle tier. As teaching school alliances grow, a larger number of schools will be part of an alliance and, since teaching schools have responsibilities in the school improvement field – not least through the deployment of national, local and specialist leaders of education – chains and teaching school alliances form an important part of the middle tier in the school improvement field, although they will never have universal coverage.

The effectiveness of the chains has been discussed in Hill et al but the effectiveness of teaching school alliances is still unproven. There is the possibility that one or more of these groups of schools will fail and therefore they themselves need to be monitored, either by the Department for Education itself (as happens currently) or by an agency other than the local authority, since no substantial chains confine themselves to a single local authority area.

4. Single local authorities

The 150 local authorities in England are (to use a much discussed educational term) a mixed ability group in school improvement terms. A good, but declining, number still offer a school improvement service to primary and special schools, but few have the expertise or capacity to do so for secondary schools.

Local authorities have a hugely important role to play in wider children’s services and this is important in helping many disadvantaged young people to achieve their potential, but the days when expertise in school improvement lay in County Hall or City Hall are gone. The expertise now lies firmly in successful schools.

The opportunity to drive school improvement through groups of local heads, facilitated by the local authority, has now passed as the number of academies has grown. These local heads’ groups are a good area school improvement model, used in some successful jurisdictions such as Alberta, and it could still be implemented in the UK in Scotland and Wales, but England has passed the point of no return and local authorities now need to concentrate their efforts on providing a good service in areas other than school improvement. Muir’s local commissioner model is perhaps the only way in school improvement could now be overseen by local authorities.

5. Groups of local authorities

Local authorities do not have a good record of working together collectively. Where there has been collective action, such as in the London Challenge or in the City Challenge, the driving force has been central, rather than local, government, with local councillors tagging along because they had little alternative. In theory, sub-regional groups of local authorities could set up a school improvement system, but it is difficult to imagine that groups of local authorities in England, some of which have already thrown in the towel in the face of advancing academy numbers, have the will or the imagination to create such a system. In Wales, however, this may well the right model for the future and the government in Wales is moving in that direction.

6. A mixture of chains, teaching schools and national or local structures

In reality, this is where we are now – a somewhat chaotic situation that leaves huge gaps in the school improvement system. Chains are driving forward their improvement agendas; teaching school alliances are starting to feel their way in the school improvement field; some local authorities have good systems for identifying where schools are under-performing and work with central government and the National College to broker support where it is needed. But this still leaves huge gaps.

7. Conclusion

Governing bodies have not been mentioned so far, but the variation in quality of governing bodies is at least as great as the variation in overall school performance. In some schools, the governing body is part of the problem. Regrettably, therefore, they cannot be a significant part of a national solution.

The system of school improvement in England has never been strategically planned and executed, with clear responsibilities set out for each of the four stages outlined above. With the increase in academies, the need for a strategy is both greater and harder to achieve. Of the models above, the reinvention, in an up-to-date form, of district HMIs would be beneficial, not least because it would force Ofsted to play a stronger role in school improvement, as well as in accountability.

Although such a development is necessary, it is not sufficient. A nationally funded network of local school commissioners is probably the only way in which universal coverage of the country can be achieved in an effective manner.

For many schools the middle tier will be the office of the chain; for others – mainly primary and special schools – it will still be the local authority. For convertor academies that are not in chains, the middle tier will be the local school commissioner, keeping a watchful eye on their performance and intervening when progress falters.

With autonomy in any public service comes greater accountability for the efficient and effective spending of public money. The issue is not whether there should be this accountability, but whether it is intelligent accountability and by whom it is exercised. In the mixed economy of schools in England, the area commissioner may be the best way forward.

No-notice inspections: a question of trust

“Forty-odd hearts might be heard thumping when at last came the sound of wheels crunching on gravel and two top hats and the top of a whip appeared outside the upper panes of the large end window. … Her Majesty’s Inspector was an elderly clergyman, a little man with an immense paunch and tiny grey eyes like gimlets. He had the reputation of being ‘strict’, but that was a mild way of describing his autocratic demeanour and scathing judgement. … What kind of man the inspector really was it is impossible to say. He may have been a great scholar, a good parish priest, and a good friend and neighbour to people of his own class. One thing, however, is certain: he did not care for or understand children.”

Thus Flora Thompson recalls school inspection in Lark Rise to Candleford. The image came to mind as I read of the intention to consult on moving to no-notice inspections for all maintained schools. (No such discourtesy would ever be visited on independent schools.)

The reason given for this in the Ofsted announcement is that the notice period for inspections has been gradually reducing over time, but that the difficulty of gathering parent views prevented Ofsted moving fully to no-notice inspections in the last consultation. Ofsted states that, with the Parent View website operational, the move can now be made. The small number of parents who have used this website suggests that there is a long way to go before Ofsted can gather as much information from parents as it does currently through the questionnaires that are generally completed in huge numbers by parents on the first day of an inspection under the current regime and which give a good sample of parent views about the school.

Another, parallel trend is not mentioned in the Ofsted announcement. At the same time as notice has been reducing, Ofsted inspections have also been inching towards becoming more of an integral part of a school’s improvement process, with the main focus being on the validity and accuracy of the school’s own self-evaluation. The starting point for an inspection has increasingly become the school’s own view of itself and the job of the inspector is to investigate the extent to which this is an accurate view, notably by doing joint lesson observations with senior staff in order to validate internal judgements.

Inspection is still tough and stressful but it has become a process done with the school’s leaders, not done to them.  Only in schools that are doing badly is the inspection not carried out in this way.

It will be much more difficult to carry out inspection as a collaborative quality assurance process. Instead the system will return to being quality control, rather than quality assurance, in a way that was long ago rejected by industry.

In her 2002 Reith Lectures, entitled A Question of Trust, Baroness Onora O’Neill drew the parallel between the type of accountability prevalent in the public sector and the lack of trust in public servants. Her notion of intelligent accountability, applied to education in schools and colleges, certainly embraces a rigorous inspection system, but it is one that takes place in an atmosphere of trust between inspector and inspected. All too often, however, the lack of consistency between inspection teams and the use of data driving grades to the exclusion of human judgement and good sense have made for some very unintelligent accountability, resented by the inspected and leaving few, if any, traces of improvement in the schools visited.

It was a mistake to exempt schools judged outstanding (40 per cent of which are not outstanding at their next inspection) from future inspections and it is a further mistake to move entirely to no-notice inspections.

A sensible inspection system works with the grain of a school’s self-evaluation, building in knowledge of the school from a local HMI (as used to be the case with HMIs who were District Inspectors) and exploring with the school’s leaders areas in which the school is doing particularly well – and how these could be shared with other schools – and areas that need improvement, what the school should be doing about them and where it might find excellent practice to assist the process.

Tough – yes; rigorous – yes; but done with the school and clearly marking out areas for improvement and ways in which that improvement might be achieved. Only in schools that do not have this capacity to improve would the inspection be done differently.

Rather like the head in the film Clockwise, I had a clear view of the school gate from my office when I was a head teacher. In the distant past, it was called a study, but there isn’t much time for studying in head’s offices now, unless it would be to study who is entering the school car park and whether they might be an inspector – in a top hat and carrying a whip, of course.

Ten things learned on my leadership journey

1.    Be creative

Dream your dreams and go into school the next day and put them into action. Although many people complain about the pressures of accountability – with some justification – there is still plenty of space for creativity in school leadership. Being creative does not necessarily mean thinking of original ideas. Creativity and innovation can come through using ideas from elsewhere and adapting them to the context of your own school.

2.    Water the plants

When I was appointed as a head, I told the appointment committee that it was my job to water the plants. My predecessor had been an autocrat (It was said that his catch phrase was ‘No’) and I needed to nurture the staff and get them thinking about the job and taking real responsibility, not just passing decisions automatically upwards.

But, as in the garden, not all the human plants need the same amount of water and nurturing. And, again as in the garden, some human plants need something much stronger than water to make them successful.

3.    Work with other schools, not against them

School leaders are part of a great movement to increase the life chances of young people by raising their aspirations and achievement. That is not confined to your own school. When you are appointed to a school leadership position, you are also being appointed to the co-leadership of education in your area. It is time that governing body appointment committees recognised that.

Of course, all school leaders want their school to be the best and work long hours towards that admirable goal, but this should not be at the expense of other schools.

Twenty years ago, when the school down the road was in trouble, the prevailing culture set by the government of the day was to encourage other local schools to celebrate the fact that they would get more applicants. Now, when a local school is in difficulty, school leaders pick up the phone and say ‘How can I help?’ The system has (or should have) moved from a culture of competition to a culture of collaboration. The benefits of partnership working between schools are proven. It is possible to both compete and collaborate. That happens in the commercial sector and can happen in the public sector too.

4.    Leadership style should suit the occasion

An inspector once asked me about my leadership style and I told him to go and ask the people I led. In fact, good leaders do not have a single leadership style. You adapt to suit the situation. The appropriate leadership style to develop a new school policy on teaching and learning is very different from the style adopted when the fire alarm goes off.

5.    Hold to your values

A values-led school is almost always a good school. Successful school leaders are open and clear about the values that underpin the work of the institution. Values are constantly reiterated to staff, students, parents and the community.

6.    Focus on learning

There is so much change in education and so many new (and renewed) policies to implement and demands to answer that it is all too easy for school leaders to lose focus. Part of the job of a good head is to act as a sieve and only let through to others the things that really matter. In that way, school leaders can keep their focus on what should always be the top priority – the quality of teaching and learning.

7.    Look outwards, not upwards

The teaching profession has spent over 20 years in a suffocating centrally directed policy climate, in which governments have told heads and teachers what to do and, increasingly, how to do it. This has created a culture in which school leaders and teachers have grown accustomed to looking upwards to see what they are being told to do.

The coalition government is saying that schools and teachers should have more freedom, so let’s stop looking up and start looking out to the many amazing projects and ideas that are happening elsewhere.

Let’s build strong professional communities that encourage the sharing of excellent practice, which is out there for all to see.

8.    Good leadership is 10 per cent action and 90 per cent communication

When a school leadership team makes a decision, it is completely useless unless it is communicated in the right way to all the right people. Change will not come without good communication – to staff, students, homes and the community. Spend more time on well directed communication, and policies and actions will be much more effective.

9.    Smile

‘There is no degree of enthusiasm that cannot be reduced with sufficient discouragement from the top.’ So school leaders, and heads in particular, need to go about the job cheerfully. After all, if the people at the top look as if they aren’t enjoying the work, there is little chance that others will do so.

10.  The 4Hs of leadership

Humility –  There are 7 billion people in the world as important as you are.

Humanity – Every child really does matter and needs to be cared for.

Hope – Every leader needs to be an optimist and believe that all children can succeed.

Humour – The sine qua non of school leadership.


Is it time to re-think the shape of the school year?

Now that the Easter holiday has ended for schools that continued the traditional pattern (a week before Easter and a week after) this year, it may be time to look again at the pattern of the school year. 

Because of the late Easter, around half of schools this year started the summer term on the day after Easter Bank Holiday Monday. 

Schools opting for the traditional pattern were given an extra day off on Tuesday 2 May as they would otherwise have missed out on the bonus of the Royal Wedding bank holiday. They returned to school on 3 May. 

For these schools, the first half of the summer term will be just 18 working days. Even for schools returning immediately after the Easter weekend, this crucial half-term for final exam preparation will be only 24 working days.

The school year is 38 weeks for the pupils, 39 for the teachers. Both long terms and short terms are very disruptive to learning patterns, so it would surely be sensible to divide the pupil year up more evenly, creating a better rhythm for the year. An obvious division would be into two ‘terms’ of seven weeks each (in the autumn up to Christmas) and four ‘terms’ of six weeks each.

Had that been the case in 2011, the terms after Christmas (terms 3 and 4 in new-speak) would have been 4 January to 11 February and 21 February to 1 April. Term 5 would then have started on 18 April, with long weekends off for Easter and May Day, providing six weeks of learning before the Whitsun break.

The year 2011 has been exceptional in that Easter Day has fallen on 24 April, just one day before the latest possible Easter date. Two years ago, Easter was as early as it can be – a full month earlier than Easter 2011. It is no wonder that the Christian calendar plays havoc with school term dates.

The situation may get worse, especially for parents with children at different schools. One of the freedoms of being an academy is that the governing body can decide the shape of the school year, including the dates of holidays and terms. With potentially thousands of academies, holiday dates could become chaotic.

There is something to be said for the French system of nationally directed school holidays, with the North, Middle and South of France taking co-ordinated turns in having earlier and later breaks in order not to put too much pressure on the holiday industry at key times, such as the February break when many French families like to go skiing. One year the North has the first of the three possible weeks, the Middle the next and the South the last; and they take turns in a nationally planned three-year cycle.

I was a member of the Local Government Association Commission on the Organisation of the School Year, which reported in 2000. Press reports at the time include these from the Independent and the Times Educational Supplement.

The rhythm of the school year – and it has a rhythm to it – is important to learning. The length of the summer holiday and the very long term from September to Christmas, with a break of only one week, each creates its own problems.

Recent research from the government links slower progress in the autumn term among primary age pupils to the long summer holiday “requiring pupils to retain their learning from the previous academic year over several weeks away from school.” So a break of five weeks, instead of six, would be an improvement.

November and early December are often difficult times for school discipline, with more strained relationships between tired teachers and tired pupils. A two-week break in October, as is already the case in some parts of the country, would be a great improvement.

 Some problems cannot be solved. Holiday dates in the Isle of Man are dictated by the dates of the TT races, those inNorthern Irelandby the long summer marching season. But it is time that the rest of us moved on from the 19th century agrarian calendar that has dominated the school year to something more sensible.

Based on the LGA Commission report, here is my suggestion:

Term 1                        7 weeks           Late-August to mid-October

Two-week break

Term 2                        7 weeks           End-October to around 21 December

Two-week break for Christmas and New Year

Term 3                        6 weeks           Early January to around 10 February

One-week break

Term 4                        6 weeks           Around 20 February to around 1 April

Two-week break

Term 5                        6 weeks           Mid-April to end-May

One-week break

Term 6                        6 weeks           early June to mid-July

Five-week break