The requirement to improve

“Requires improvement”.  It’s a curious phrase.  Although it’s made of English words, there’s something not-quite-English about the idiom; as if it’s been translated by a computer from a less friendly language.  It’s rather passive-aggressive, with the emphasis on the aggressive.

I doubt that it was used much before 2012, when Ofsted re-badged satisfactory as R.I..  I understand the intention and ambition behind the change.  Five years on, though, I’m increasingly convinced that the label of “Requires Improvement”, as a label that one part of the education system can stick on another part, hasn’t worked.

For a while, any problems with schools were seen as essentially technical.  The impression given by those in charge was the right way to teach had been sorted out, and it was simply a question of making sure that the resources were available, and that teaching staff jolly well did what they were told.  (I have memories of a head holding up the Ofsted framework, in much the same way that an evangelist would hold up the Bible, and telling us that this was The Way To Teach).  It was (and to an extent, still is) a strange mixture pedagogies which probably didn’t really please anyone.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) prog; if a lesson has a clear (and teacher-defined) success criterion, it can’t really be progressive.  Comparing my experience as a pupil in the 1980’s with that of the pupils I teach now, they are much better trained in what to write to pass exams, and their whole school experience is much more closely managed than mine was.

Equally, it wasn’t (and isn’t) trad; if the lesson model is about pupil talk, or putting generic skills above learning a canon of content, it can’t really be traditional teaching.  It wasn’t (and isn’t) fully technocratic either, though the prevailing model of teaching had (and has) a lot of monitoring, tracking and intervention to hold the whole thing together.

(This might be why the prog-trad wars in education are often so unproductive. Both sides of the argument can make a reasonable claim to “have lost”, so both sides feel like David up against Goliath.  In situations where we feel our opponents have an inbuilt advantage, it’s very tempting to think that the rules of debate shouldn’t apply quite so rigourously to us as to our opponents.)

Anyway- that was the model of teaching.  From 2012 onwards, teaching that didn’t conform to that model Required Improvement.  Teachers were to be frequently observed to make sure that they were doing all the things on the checklist, and if they weren’t there in an observation, heaven help you.  So, everyone did what they were told.  This worked about as well as the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente did at preventing World War 1 (rude word coming up):

Edmund:  You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other.   The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent.   That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick:  But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?

Edmund:  Yes, that’s right.   You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George:   What was that, sir?

Edmund:  It was bollocks.

Blackadder Goes Forth: Goodbyee

In these last few years, teachers have done a lot of things which were, frankly, rubbish, in order to avoid being labelled R.I.  We’ve taught in 20 minute blocks, and moved pupils onto new content before they can possibly have got long-term mastery of anything.  We’ve done mini-plenaries and convinced ourselves that we could say exactly what pupils have learned.  We’ve obsessed about Purposeful Learner Talk all the time, and ignored the difficulty of thinking in a room with multiple conversations going on at once.  We’ve put subgrades and sublevels on individual pieces of work, ignoring the detail that grades and levels didn’t work like that, can’t really be divided into thirds and that there’s good evidence that grades swamp any other feedback you give.

I’ve done all of these things, even though I sort-of suspected that they weren’t a good idea.  The Requirement to Improve was a Requirement to Conform.  Worse than that, the conformity was to a model which was actually quite questionable, if you dared.  Understandably, few did for a long time.

Whatever the frustrations and imperfections of teaching in England today, it is a good thing that this model has begun to melt.  There are schools of all sorts of stripe trying models which they believe in, which are different to the standard prog-trad-tech setting.  That’s healthy.  It does leave a challenge, though.

“Requires improvement” as a label would be problematic, even if it hadn’t driven some pretty harmful trends.  Requiring improvement as an ambition, something chosen, that’s a different matter.  It might not show up in results, even; the focus on progress measures based on real grade scales (like Progress 8) shows how hard it is to change results on a school-wide basis.  Improvement has to be about doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing.

Improvement also needs honesty about what approaches to education are more likely to work better in the classroom, particularly in a world of real children and finite resources.  Part of that honesty is about acknowledging what we don’t know, rather than enforcing the current orthodoxy.

As I said at the start, “Requires improvement” is a curious phrase, with a tone characteristic of a certain way of doing things.  It’s a way that hasn’t gone away… yet.  But just maybe, it is fading enough to allow real improvement to happen.

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