The cynics are right nine times out of ten.

H.L. Mencken

Does the outstanding grade retard innovation or drive us towards excellence?

This is just a flight of fancy; a thought experiment. What would happen if we did away with the outstanding grade for schools? What if ‘good’ was good enough? What would be different?

Let’s remember that Ofsted have acknowledged that there is no such thing as an outstanding lesson, but all schools are still judged on a four point scale with ‘outstanding’ being the highest accolade a school can receive. Imagine this bauble was taken away. What then?

I had this discussion with Joe Kirby yesterday morning and we came at this from two quite different angles. Joe is, I think, inherently an optimist and an idealist. He’s accomplished an amazing amount in short space of time and has exacting standards of excellence in all he does. He argued that it’s potentially damaging for good schools to obsess on what Ofsted will judge as outstanding. Much better that they get on with the business of innovating and improving outcomes for all the children they teach without fear or favour.

Being by nature somewhat cynical, I took the position of devil’s advocate. Where would be the incentive for schools to excel if they could only be recognised as being good? If good was good enough, would schools be content with that? Yes, there’s still the incentive of league tables, but haven’t they resulted in schools chasing a succession of perverse incentives resulting in kids being pressured into taking unsuitable qualifications that failed to enable them to get on their preferred college courses and balking at anything that smacked of being academic, or even a bit hard? Doesn’t this result in teaching feeling under pressure to massage internal assessments and exam boards to tout their specification as easier to get a C in than the competition? Without an outstanding grade, what is there to strive for?

I’m sure I’ve not done Joe’s position justice and have perhaps made my counter-argument a bit over emotionally, but I think, deep down, that majority of people are motivated by self-interest. Yes of course there are saints and martyrs: people who look down the generations to see the impact of their legacies, but most of us are somewhat more quotidian in our drivers.

My contention is that we are driven by the need for recognition, the need for acceptance, and the urge to protect ourselves from harm. These motivations are unbidden. We may not be conscious of them but they are usually at the heart of what makes us tick if you dig deeply enough. These are not attractive qualities and we often hide the roots of our desire from ourselves as much as from others, but they’re there. Whether they’re in the driving seat depends on how honest we are with ourselves.

Maybe I’m wrong, but if I’m not might this mean that without the recognition of being ‘outstanding’ we will revert to risk aversion and not stick our heads over the parapets? Maybe you’re an inspirational leader who does the right thing because you’re driven by some higher purpose. But can we build a system that relies on this instinct? I worry not. The point is, we all ‘require improvement’ because we can all be better. Maybe the outstanding grade could be a mechanism for ensuring this requirement?

It would perhaps be far more interesting to ask schools to define outstanding for themselves with the role of an inspectorate to validate these aspirations. But more on that tomorrow…

In the meantime, please add your own thoughts on the impact of ‘outstanding’ below.

Related posts

The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons
A tale of two lessons: further thoughts on the Cult of Outstanding
An inconvenient truth? A surplus model of school improvement