No Such Thing as a Bad School

‘It would be tempting to conclude that any school in which every student gets five good GCSE grades must be a very good school indeed, and any school where four out of five students fail to do so must be a very bad school, but as we shall see, things are not quite so simple.’

                         Dylan Wiliam ‘ Are there ‘Good’ schools and ‘Bad’ schools?’

Reading ‘Bad Education -Debunking Myths in Education’, edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon,  this week, I became increasingly aware that my highlighter had gone into overload. This well-researched and levelheaded book attempts to address some issues in education doing exactly what it says it will. Debunking myths like class size, learning styles and grouping by ability. Regardless of your stance on any of these issues, and more, I heartily recommend it.

bad education

The highlighter suggested to me that I might want to address some of these issues here on the blog. Dylan Wiliam’s essay entitled ‘Are there ‘Good’ Schools and ‘Bad’ Schools?’ is the opening chapter. In it, he claims that there is no real thing as a bad school. It might seem strange, especially to some of our national media, that this is the case. We hear stories of nightmare schools, those who still appear lower down the ‘league tables’, which, allegedly, don’t exist in Scotland any more. But every year at exam time the same news programmes turn up at the same schools to publicise the best exam results. But what exactly are they best at? Educating? Having the best teachers? Hmmm. Something about that doesn’t seem right.

The reality is somewhat different, however. What Dylan Wiliam says is that, according to the data, there is very little difference in any schools, even those in the private sector. In fact:

‘… controlling for the social class of the students, students in state schools and private schools in the UK perform about the same…’ Dylan Wiliam

The data suggests that schools are more or less the same all over and that it doesn’t really matter which school you go to as long as you go to school. In terms of progress, there is little difference.

So, instead of measuring the number of A’s our students get we should be looking solely at the progress they are making. The only factor we should be really addressing is the learning they are doing rather than the best grades overall. But that’s difficult isn’t it? Progress isn’t a good media story. Five Higher A’s is a great story.

So how might this knowledge change the way the public thinks about our schools? How might this change the way HMI in Scotland, and OFSTED in England, report on our schools? How might we begin to change the reputation of so-called ‘bad schools’ and remove the label? Bad press like this means that schools can, due to placing requests, become tainted by reputation; morale amongst staff drops and it becomes difficult to turn that around. And it’s all based on a lie.

So when we either look on enviously at others with a good OFSTED or HMI report- or look down at them –  what are we really doing? Is the grass ever greener on either side? What should the Inspectorate be for? They should be the experts who help us get better not tell us we’re not good enough. If we, as teachers, have any worth, then we already know we need to be better. It’s like the old story of the stand up comic who wants to now how his act can be improved. ‘Well, you need to be funnier.’

For me Dylan Wiliam’s essay confirms the notion that blaming the kids or the school or the management is really a waste of my time. All I can really do is teach better. Every day.

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