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Just doing the best we can, continually


I was intrigued to see on Twitter last week a debate about whether Ofsted should be looking to remove gradings, and especially 'outstanding', given to schools following the inspection process. One person commented along the lines that if a school was performing to a 'good' standard, that should be enough. I tended to agree with them. In Scotland we don't have 'outstanding' schools, we have 'excellent' ones, as this is the top grading awarded in our inspection process. Something for some schools to feel proud of, others to aspire to and everyone else to feel inadequate about. Dylan Wiliam is often quoted as saying that 'teaching is the only profession where we know we are going to come in and know we are going to fail every day.' By this, he is simply pointing out that teaching, and learning, are very complex activities and with so many variables, that we can never get it absolutely right, for every pupil and on every day. We are doomed to always knowing that we could always do better!

I know a few headteachers who have received 'Excellent' gradings for their schools following an inspection, but who still say things like, 'I actually don't think we are excellent' or 'there is still lots we can get better at'. It is good to hear them say things like that, and I think they are genuine in their assessments, no matter what any external report may say. We can all get better, and we should all be aiming to get better at what we do. We should be doing this as part of our professional responsibilities, and because of our intrinsic values and motivation. Not because of our desire to impress external assessors, determined to hold us to account, and finding us wanting against their notion of what an excellent school looks like, or against other schools in other contexts. We stopped ranking pupils a long time ago, though I see this is gaining popularity again in some establishments in other systems, so why should we do this to schools? Do we really need to be forced to get better at what we do? In my experience, most schools and teachers, have this characteristic at the core of their practice. Of course, there will be a few who are not intrinsically motivated, or who find themselves in a place of being hopelessly overwhelmed by all they have to do. Instead of ridiculing and hanging such teachers and schools out to dry, or damming them with 'grades' awarded, we should look to support them to get better, just as we do with learners.

I have written before about the 'illusion of accountability' provided by the inspection process. We are all complicit in this and organisations, systems and governments use the 'data' provided to judge schools and teachers, even though we may have huge concerns over the validity and usefulness of such 'data'. I my view, we should start from the premise that all schools and teachers are doing the best they can at particular points in time, and given the challenges they all face. I love this quote from Maya Angelou, 'Do the best you can, until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.' I am a different and better school leader and teacher than I was 10 yrs ago, because I now know better than I did then. I have learned from experience, developing my tacit knowledge and understandings, and I have learned from research about leadership and learning, and through collaborations in my on-going professional development. What I was doing 10yrs ago was probably good for then, but not for now.

I use the same approach with teachers. All the teachers I work with are different and better teachers than they were 10 yrs ago, because they have grown and developed their understandings and their practice. Some have grown more than others, but that's okay, because they are all individuals, they all started from different points and they have all had different experiences, both personally and professionally, during this time. That's life! I don't expect them to be perfect, I expect them to fail at times, but I do expect them to keep growing and developing throughout their careers, not because I say they must, but because they want to. I know they are all trying to do the best they can. None of them comes into school each day  thinking 'I want to do a bad job for my learners today.' But I recognise they will have days where that might happen, we all do. My job is to create the conditions that allow them to do the best they can, and to do this over time and for all learners. If teachers are growing, in terms of their understanding, practice and impact on learning, then the schools they work in are doing the same. We don't need a grade to tell us this. What we need is support and time for this to happen.

In Finland there are no inspections of schools and high levels of trust in teachers, schools and the system. This is not the same in our own system, nor many others, because we have allowed ourselves to be dictated to by unqualified and less knowledgeable 'outsiders'. Education is too important to society to be seen as a business, or a vehicle for political ambition and toughness. Yes, we need to be accountable, but such accountability is best expressed in terms of the learners we ultimately produce and their positive impacts in society. We have let control of curriculum and learning and teaching slip from professional hands, and be dictated by those who have smaller agendas and priorities, and more to do with providing fodder for business, industry and global markets.

We all need systems, structures and leaders that help us to be the best we can continually.

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