Head’s Blog: How do you assess the quality of schools and the education they deliver?

Oscar Wilde had Lord Darlington quip in Lady Windermere’s Fan that a cynic was “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Perhaps Lord Darlington was a bit harsh on cynics as prices tend to be readily quantifiable whereas values can be much harder to define yet alone measure.

This is certainly true when it comes to assessing the quality of schools and the education they deliver. Many assessments of school quality focus on easy-to-define, measure and rank data such as Key Stage 1 and 2 test results, public exam grades and university destinations. These are important and noteworthy outcomes of an education, but they are narrow academic measures that do not include other indicators of educational excellence such as high-quality pastoral care and a wide range of extra-curricular activities which are vital to pupil wellbeing and personal development. Excellent exam scores are also in part a product of how academically selective a school is, as the best predictor of future exam results is past exam results.

In evaluating a school’s academic performance, it is important to take account of the ability of its students and this is done by value-added analysis. Value-added analysis looks at both the baseline abilities of children and the exam grades they achieve. Put simply you would expect academically talented students to do well in exams, but in a good school they should do even better than the average grade outcomes for high ability pupils.

Many parents understandably turn to inspection reports to gauge school quality. These can be useful documents, but it is important to understand their limitations. In the independent sector, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) carry out two forms of school inspection – ‘compliance’ and ‘educational quality’. Compliance inspections are the school equivalent of an MOT with pass or fail outcomes and no real assessment of quality. As their name suggests, compliance inspections focus on the independent school standards and whether policies and procedures are compliant with them. They say very little about the quality of academic, pastoral and extra-curricular provision. This is the role of the Education Quality Inspections (EQI), which in the independent sector typically happen once every six years. Whilst EQIs do aim to ‘lift the bonnet’ and really assess the quality of a school’s provision, in reality a small team of inspectors in a school for just three days once every six years cannot assess everything and judgements based on partial evidence from one point in time may not be truly representative.

The usual measures of school quality have their limitations. This is not surprising – schools are complex places with lots of moving parts and whilst some of what a school does is relatively easy to measure, much is not. Even the easy to measure stuff, such as public exam results, needs to be questioned. A level and GCSE exams are still largely timed memory tests which favour students with good recall and neat, quick handwriting. Is this ‘Victorian’ approach to assessment the best way of measuring academic attainment in the 21st Century?

Universities and business are increasingly turning to new forms of digital and ‘open book’ assessments which they believe more accurately measure attainment than old fashioned exams.

For me, any decent measure of school quality has got to look at academic, pastoral, and extra-curricular dimensions. However, the most important element of a school is possibly the most difficult to accurately measure. After nearly 15 years as a Head, I am convinced that excellent schools share one thing in common and that is kind, supportive, considerate and positive relationships between all members of the school community – pupils, staff and parents. Of course, human beings are fallible. They make mistakes and get things wrong, so no school will have perfect relationships all of the time. Schools with long histories like The Perse will have made mistakes in the past and it is important that we learn from them to improve pastoral care and strengthen our commitment to inclusion, equality and diversity. We need to be honest about our successes and our failures and recognise that the road to improvement can be bumpy, but by improving pupil-pupil, staff-pupil, pupil-parent and parent-school relationships through role modelling positive behaviours, good schools can become even better.

As parents know and psychological research has shown, the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to social considerations. What others say and do, or don’t say and do, have big positive or negative impacts on teenage personal development and self-esteem.

Doing everything we can in schools and homes to promote kind, supportive, considerate and positive relationships will be rewarded in the form of happier and more successful teenagers who should grow up to be adults who will make the world a better place.

As you get older you take more interest in obituaries, and in obituaries you can see evidence of the lasting impact of an education on a life. The best education lasts a long time and has a very positive effect. So I end with a quote from the Church Times obituary of an Old Persean, Roger Norris, who was a librarian at Durham Cathedral.

“Roger had no interest in material possessions. His friends and beloved books were much more important to him. In his retirement, he could be seen in his battered car, taking a friend to hospital or clinic appointment, shopping for the housebound, or hospital or care-home visiting. He took his godparent duties to his nine godchildren very seriously.

“Roger had a truly unique character. He judged no-one. He befriended at face value and always saw the best in everyone. His friends came from all walks of life, all ages, nationalities, faiths or none. Although very sociable, he was also a private, modest and humble person. He lived by his motto ‘you cannot be too kind to people’.”

Of our four Perse values, ‘valuing one another’ is the most important. It cannot be easily measured, but its positive effects are profound and last far longer than test scores and exam grades.

Ed Elliott


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