The story in the headline: What TES equivocation reveals

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I will start with what looks very much like the end. Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, have visited the Outwood Grange Academies Trust – which specialises in taking over and turning around failing schools – and given it the all clear. This follows a school-shaming saga that began with an accusation which was not substantiated and then roved around a range of alternative, more vague accusations in the usual school-shaming manner.

The interesting thing about this particular episode is that the Times Educational Supplement (TES) led the charge, publishing a number of stories reporting allegations against the trust as I documented here.

While Schools Week, a rival publication, decided to lead with the headline, “Ofsted ‘accepts’ OGAT’s high exclusion rate in glowing summary evaluation,” the TES led with, “Ofsted tells Outwood Grange to cut exclusions,” and Tweeted:

“Flattening the grass,” relates to the initial, unsubstantiated allegation that teachers at Outwood Grange had deliberately singled-out children in assembly to make them cry. We know from one of Sue Cowley’s abundant freedom of information requests that Outwood Grange maintain this phrase, “was an analogy created and used by a previous CEO where he described the need to create a level playing field by removing old, bad systems which had failed children and staff before he could introduce new policies and practices.” Which is hardly scandalous.

At first, it seems difficult to reconcile that Schools Week and the TES are writing about the same Ofsted report. The report is indeed glowing in its praise for the trust. For instance, “The CEO and executive leaders model strong and principled leadership and an unwavering determination to provide the best quality of education for pupils.” So what accounts for the TES headline and tweet?

Partly, I suspect, this is a natural result of the fact that the TES had staked out a position on Outwood Grange that pride makes it difficult to retreat from. The headline appears to be an equivocation of one of the three recommendations in the report that instructs the school to, “Continue to improve pupils’ behaviour so that the proportion of fixed-term exclusions further reduces across the Trust’s secondary schools.” This indicates that behaviour is already improving, exclusions are already reducing and the way to realise further reductions is through further improvement in behaviour.

The TES headline interprets this simply as an instruction to ‘cut exclusions’. There is a key difference here that, if we are to be generous, the reporters and editors at the TES may be unaware of, but that is instructive about the behaviour debate.

As far as I know, nobody involved on any side of this debate wants to see children excluded from school and everyone would like to see the number of exclusions reduce. They key dividing line is how you achieve this. There are those of us who think that the best approach is bottom-up. Schools need to build a culture of high expectations supported by robust policies. School leaders need to prioritise behaviour. This requires recognising that behaviour is at least as affected by circumstance as it is by the individual personalities involved and so schools need to manipulate these circumstances – antecedents – such as how students move around the school, how classrooms are arranged and so on. Schools need to make expectations explicit and constantly reinforce them, recognising that these may be different to the expectations at home and therefore need teaching. And reinforcement must include lots of positive consequences and, necessarily, some negative ones. By planning and teaching for good behaviour and sweating the small stuff, we can avoid the escalation that leads to exclusion. I do not know much about Outwood Grange, but I understand that this is the kind of approach to behaviour that they pursue when they take over schools.

On the other side are those who favour top-down regulation that coerces schools to reduce exclusions. This tackles the number of exclusions but does not tackle the causes of the behaviour that leads to these exclusions. In fact, many advocates of regulation are strongly opposed to the kind of approach I have outlined above, dubbing it authoritarian or even discriminatory. I can only see one logical consequence of top-down mandates to reduce exclusion coupled with permissive approaches to school behaviour: unsafe schools where little learning occurs.

In the light of this debate, the Ofsted recommendation is a clear vindication of the Outwood Grange approach because it recognises the path to reduced exclusion is through better behaviour and it recognises Outwood Grange’s progress in achieving better behaviour, whatever form of grass-flattening that entails.

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One thought on “The story in the headline: What TES equivocation reveals

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Sadly, no one ever seems to recognise one of the most salient features of these so-called ‘no excuses’ policies: once the corridors are safe, pupils buy in to the changes enthusiastically. It no longer becomes ‘cool’ to wind up teachers, so teachers have far less stress. Ironically, it make for a far happier and more cooperative atmosphere than you’ll ever find at the kind of schools the TES seems to be celebrating.

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