How should a school be judged?

Many would say its capacity to produce good exam results.

Exam grades do at least offer a standard point of comparison from which different schools can be reviewed and ranked.

For parents, why would you not want your child being taught somewhere that has a proven track-record? After all decent university places and graduate schemes demand proven results.

So it is understandable that exam results have been seen as the key determinant of whether a school can achieve the coveted “outstanding” status from the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) in the past.

This remains a topic worthy of debate however.  

Speaking to The Guardian (see here) last December Pro Bono Economics Chairman and former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell said: “We are addicted to exams…but measuring success by exam results is fuelling stress, anxiety and failure among pupils, teachers, and schools.

“It’s clear from what we know that improving kids’ wellbeing is a much better way of improving their lives than improving their scores in these exams”.

This point is not lost on the current Chief Inspector at Ofsted, Amanda Spielman.

Writing in January she said: “We are proposing an evolutionary shift that rebalances inspection to look rather more closely at the substance of education: what is taught and how it is taught, with test and exam outcomes looked at in that context, not in isolation”.

Ms Spielman was referring to a proposed new inspection framework from Ofsted (see here) that would – if agreed – “de-intensify” the focus on performance data as historically understood  (just grades). A more rounded “quality of education” judgement would be put in place.

This is a very interesting prospect.

To explore one aspect in a little more detail, there is academic research which suggests that increasing the amount of time pupils spend doing physical activities (either during school time or at extra-curricular level) may enhance their academic performance[1].  

Could an exclusive emphasis on core-performance data in say, Maths, English and Science even be self-defeating for schools?

The findings from a Pro Bono Economics report published in December 2017 on behalf of Greenhouse Sports, a London-based charity that uses sport to help young people living in the inner city realise their full potential, also make for interesting reading here[2].

They show that on average, 36% of Greenhouse Sports pupils exercise for more than 60 minutes a day, a figure more than twice the then London average of 16%.

Pupil engagement with Greenhouse Sports appears to contribute to an average increase in annual attendance of four percentage points. What is more, programme participants in relevant schools outperformed their peers by up to a third of a grade in English and 40% of a grade in Maths.

Clearly this is a complicated subject; schools have finite budgets and teachers’ collective capacity is at (and often beyond) breaking point, so cramming the day with yet more activities and demands might be a stretch.

However, if Ofsted can facilitate more rounded learning environments that see time freed up for physical activity, and of course for arts and culture, there is growing evidence to suggest this will help teachers and pupils.

Teachers may no longer be quite as constrained to march to the drum-beat of delivery in exams, more exams and little else. 

Happier, healthier pupils doing better in those all-important exams could be the long-term result.

If more schools are able to engage in creative ways of fostering children’s wellbeing and attainment in tandem, long-term studies of their effectiveness will also be possible, the findings of which only improve our understanding of what works in this regard.

Lord O’Donnell is clearly onto something here, and Pro Bono Economics was very happy to make these points in a submission to the Ofsted consultation earlier this month (see here).

We eagerly await the final form of the new inspection framework.