Ofsted Chief Inspector condemns some primary and secondary schools that put league tables above the interests of students. But why are we surprised when the pressure is on to deliver exam grades?

By Rachel Lancashire

It’s always a contentious issue when the ‘O’ word is mentioned in schools. There are some who view Her Majesty’s Inspectors words as gospel who live and breathe them, and then there are others who just don’t. Which one am I? I can almost hear you asking as you read this, and again I feel torn between the two.

I do care because I want to feel as though I am doing a good job and then on the other hand, I couldn’t care less because my children are happy, they make progress and I figure that if someone is going to tell me that I am doing it all wrong and I’m not good enough, I’d take that from someone I look up to and respect. The people who see me day in and day out, on good days and bad, through tired and wild days, not some Ofsted detective who waltzes into a thirty minute (if that) snippet of one lesson and decides to label my whole career on that fleeting moment of one day.

The fact is that it shouldn’t surprise anyone, who really understands the nitty-gritty of teaching and education, that the pressure is most definitely on and cookers all over the nation are exploding with the heat that is filtrated down from Ofsted gurus.

But, before we go any further I think it’s important to mention that in my opinion, league tables should only ever be referred to in the context of sport. If we encourage our children to run well, score goals when they can and stay active in their learning journey, then why do we then feel it’s necessary to measure their collective success in school rank order? Surely, if it was done efficiently and fairly then there would be different starting points to accommodate all catchment areas. We often hear about the North-South divide in education, but what is done about it?

It’s preposterous to even imagine a Chief Ofsted Inspector condemning schools for placing league tables ahead of the interests of their children. I’d like to ask this particular Ofsted Inspector what should happen instead, especially if the health and well-being of school staff is on the line, not to mention the sanity and creativity of our children.

The way I see it is that there are only two real options for schools. They can either sink but teach their children to swim, or swim and all members of the school community sink. Please bare with me while I break that down (for my own sake as much as yours).

To sink but teach their children to swim – schools put the interests of the children first, follow their creativity and questions, and prioritise their mental health and well-being only to be told they have failed as they didn’t reach the percentage of expected standard to qualify for a place in the top 100 schools in the country.

The children leave happy, learned lots by having their own questions about the world answered as well as having made good progress and life-long memories. They can swim.
Meanwhile, the school sinks having not reached its unreachable targets, staff quit as they are told they aren’t good enough in a career they’ve loved for twenty plus years and schools effectively become run like businesses by business men and women.

Or, they swim but not only the children but all members of the school community sink – the school survives, results are good and data is soaring. What about the children? They are disengaged, exhausted, anxious little beings who have churned out test after test after test until they got it right and now, they have nothing left to give.
The staff, on the other hand, well no-one dares to mention the amount of unhappiness and unrest, the total hours spent laboriously marking but to no avail and the number of staff feeling burnt-out and lacklustre, to say the least. They swim – for now and almost always with armbands but at least they’re still in jobs, right?

Sink or swim might seem like the only two options in schools at the moment, but can you imagine what amazing places schools would be if there was an option to surf? To reach a happy medium; swimming on deadly waters with huge risks of high waves and changing tides, but no fear. You are instructed by a professional; they ride the waves with you and lift you back onto the board when you have a wobble. They challenge you to attack that seven foot wave and glide through the tunnel to reach the other side where crowds of people stand to cheer you on from the beach. Imagine that. How empowering that could be for schools? How incredible that would be for our children?

These might just be the ramblings of a primary school teacher, but I hope that someone somewhere takes teachers ramblings seriously because actually, we don’t like moaning. We just want to do our job and do it well and that can’t always be measured by a pretty chart or place in a league table, especially when we were at a disadvantage from the start anyway and ‘they’ knew it.