To Manchester for a conference on “Can all schools be good?” It’s an intriguing title for a conference as well as being a topical question. Think about it: one of the outcomes for a school inspection is ‘good’. This is an absolute term, supported by criteria. Logically all schools could be good (or none of them). However ‘outstanding’ is relative, though it is also supported by criteria. Having all schools being outstanding doesn’t make sense (unless they were outstanding in different ways).
Chair of the conference was Professor Mick Waters, from Wolverhampton University. Mick is one of the good guys in education, having a strong background in teaching, school leadership, local authority work and then at QCA. He’s perceptive, rooted in rock solid principles about what constitutes effective learning and is very witty. It’s a winning combination.
One of his suggestions was that the outcomes of inspections should simply be either ‘good’ or ‘not good.’ He’d recently put his car in for its MoT test and had been told that it had passed. “What, no outstanding features?” he’d responded. It’s a good point; if schools are letting kids down that’s not right. However, a multiple category system implies a normal distribution curve of outcomes for various schools. This limits outstanding outcomes for fear of debasing the term. Inspection outcomes being good or not doesn’t stop schools seeking to excel but means they would do so in other ways.
One of his other concerns about inspections though is that it may distort what teachers seek to do with pupils and, more specifically, may lead them to focus upon ‘generating evidence’ rather than on genuine learning. Mick told the story of observing a lesson in which pupils were looking at the idea of reversible and irreversible changes. One of the examples they considered was that of melting chocolate.
He asked the pupils sat near him whether it was reversible or irreversible and they decided it was reversible. Upon probing they suggested that this was so because if it got hot it melted and became a liquid but if it was cooled down it went back to being a solid. But what would it taste like, he asked, the same? Oh. Don’t know. Well, what about setting jelly? Irreversible. Why? Because if you make jelly and it sets you can’t get back to the solid lumps in the packet. Well – you put it in the fridge to help it set; what would happen if you heated it? Not sure.
At this stage the lesson could go either way. One would hope that some practical work would follow with pupils exploring questions and finding out about the different ways that materials behave. There’s a risk however that their earlier responses are simple captured as “evidence of making predictions” and that no such deep learning subsequently takes place.
Now, I’m not naïve about this. Schools need good inspection outcomes and they need evidence to secure them. However, inspections, like exams, can’t measure everything. Sometimes in science authentic learning involves activities that are less neat and sometimes messy. We have to be true to our principles about what we know to be good practice and go to that place.
Ed Walsh is Science adviser for Cornwall Learning. In the past, he has worked extensively with teachers, schools, local authorities and national agencies in relation to science education.